Saturday, February 5, 2011

With Love: Memories of a Mother-in-Law

My first mother-in-law was a New York Italian that had relocated to Florida. She died when my then-husband and I were twenty-five. I never got to know her the way I wish I had, but her legend has lived with me long after her death, my divorce from her son, and the increased distance from what used to be so clearly called family. I often wish I could ask her about raising sons or share with her my children.

While managing a successful franchise of hair salons, Linda raised four children, the youngest of whom was my former spouse. In an Italian family, the youngest boy might be highly prized, but his wife is at the bottom of the sausage pile. I don’t think this family was aware that they maintained this hierarchy and I learned to just accept my place. I never felt I had anything to offer them or was worth much; I was young, inexperienced, na├»ve, and found entry into a loud clan of Italian Americans to be a bit of a shock. Linda, however, humored me. She made me tea and asked me about my New Orleans upbringing--I'd come from a place where we attended formal teas, poetry readings, and spontaneous jazz performances. My presence was some kind of aberration from the norm. But oh, she did love me. She had congratulated her baby for marrying a Catholic (at the time I was the only one, but one in-law converted later) and asked her boy what he had done to marry such a nice girl, as though she herself had ever doubted that possibility.

Linda, always with perfectly sculpted blonde hair, spoke with typical Jersey brogue and sometimes widened her large, pool-blue eyes behind her even larger glasses as a wordless response--one that I could not read and therefore would drive me to mild angst. She entered and exited rooms with great whirls of energy as she carried platters of steaming Italian delicacies for Sunday dinner or bursting shopping bags. She was incredibly savvy, industrious, and absolutely generous. She knew how to overlook the shortcomings of her own children much less those of a still-maturing young woman such as myself. Everyone loved her, and Linda loved back, mixing her love with occasional humorous criticism.

“Why don’t you move to Florida?” she used to ask my spouse and I. “What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with Florida? You don’t love us anymore?” And on a visit to see us in our far away state, she sat in our car behind my former-athlete spouse and poked him in the neck saying, “Oh my Gawd! Your neck is so thick! You're letting it get too thick!” She continued to berate him about it as though survival depended upon immediate diminishment of this body part.

Linda knew when sensitive matters required careful judgment. I will never forget her intervening when another in-law had commissioned me to complete a painting to emulate the style of Bev Doolittle. I was given the assignment, took incredible creative license with it (and produced not at all what they had wanted, silly me), and they hated it. Linda took it upon herself to buy the painting instead. She hung it in the guestroom and now, a niece has it. Looking back, I see clearly my mistake as well as Linda's creative solution and beneficence. What she did was to preserve a relationship and strengthen another one. God bless her.

During my second year of marriage, Linda was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died just three months later. At the end of that year, we opened Christmas gifts that she had bought for us before she had been confined first to a wheelchair and then to a bed. She had shopped knowing she wouldn’t live to see us unwrap her precious parcels. I cannot remember at all what she had purchased, but can still feel clearly the sacred silence in the room as we reflected on that final gesture of love and generosity. My then-husband has never recovered from her death. I can understand and appreciate this. None of us have ever been the same.

Note: Before dying, my mother-in-law had predicted that I was pregnant and would have a child in April. I was not expecting at the time, but a baby did come three years later on one April morning. In a joyful tribute, we blessed this hazel-eyed, wriggling newborn with a lovely middle name, Linda. In Italian, it means pretty. This child, who is almost eleven, certainly lives up to that.

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