Saying Goodbye to My Mother-in-Law
(reprinted from my blog last week)
Last week, we received the news that Grandma Florida passed away. While we had been preparing for this day since hearing her cancer had returned, the finality of it all was still shocking to hear. I admit, ours was not the best of relationships. It was complicated in the extreme, but she was my children's grandmother and there was no doubt about how much she loved them. They haven't seen her in a while and weren't able to say good bye at the end, but she was in our thoughts daily. I hope she knows this now.
It's hard to believe it's been over twenty years since Jon brought me home to meet his parents on Long Island only a few weeks after we graduated from college. Now, I am a parent myself and my perspective on that meeting has, well, let's just say it's "evolved". At the time I didn't really understand how difficult it can be to watch your kids grow up and move away from you. Meeting "the boyfriend" or "girlfriend" instantly draws a line in the sand between you and your child. They are making a new life for themselves and you're not so welcome in it. It hasn't officially happened to me yet, but my oldest is almost 16 and she's starting to have that look in her eyes. The one that says she's becoming a woman and someday, she's out of here.
When I look back at the first time I met Grandma Florida she wasn't much older than I am now and she still had a real name - Barbara. I remember sitting in her kitchen with Jon and seeing the look of panic on his face when we heard the front door open signaling his parents return from the Nautilaus Diner in town. He knew the risk he had taken and the moment Barbara walked into the kitchen I knew I was in for the ultimate test. Jon looked like he was going to have a panic attack. Actually, he might have been having one right there. At the time I didn't know how to recognize the signs...
Truly, we were aliens to each other. The 22 year old in the kitchen with her son was nothing like they had planned. It took about ten minutes of casual interrogation, excuse me, I mean, conversation, to realize I had one hell of a long weekend ahead of me. I'm pretty sure it lasted about an hour, but felt like six and all manner of easy and fun topics were broached. I recall sitting at the kitchen table while Barbara, looking young, perfectly dressed, in amazing shape, with the most perfect acrylic manicure I'd ever seen, smiled and offered us something to drink. Then the friendly questions began. We talked about Catholicism (Jon's Jewish), my rather large Irish family, my decision to put off law school until the following year and my decidedly uncool address in Riverdale - in the Bronx. Yes, the Bronx. If you know anyone who's grown up on Long Island, you know many people out there don't like to leave. The Bronx may as well have been Mars. I'm pretty sure she was about to have a heart attack when she found out that uncool address was also my very own apartment, one I jokingly referred to as "The Bat Cave". Cue the sound of crickets. I might mention that I am the youngest of six and I have five older brothers. You don't grow up in a house like that without developing a pretty strong personality yourself. Though I was respectful, I was also opinionated...I did plan on law school after all. That first meeting was quite an experience.
Barbara was full of surprises and that night was no different. Despite coming across as a pretty intense mom, she was decidedly liberal about where girlfriends could sleep. When she said she left extra pillows in Jon's room I almost fell over with shock and incredible discomfort. It turned out his brother had his own shiksa girlfriend (she was from upstate New York) and they had claimed the bedroom with the bigger bed. Seriously, that would not go over well with my family. Barbara said it was no big deal. When Jon and I left to meet friends at a local bar that evening, I imagine she might have poured a huge glass of her favorite Gin and chugged it. As for me, I remember thinking I'd just enlisted in some weird Long Island Boot Camp. A lot of beer flowed at a place called Lilly Flanagan's that night. Although, I had no premonition about the future, it turned out that weekend in June of 1991 was the beginning of a life changing roller coaster ride for all of us.
Only a few months after that first meeting I was invited to join them for Thanksgiving. First, to my shock I learned that no one actually cooked for the holiday, it was all catered. Then, just as we were all settled in around the table, Jon's certifiably crazy, cousin Howie faked an orgasm and referenced the three Catholic women at the table, "Oh, Catholic girls!!! Ooooh!" The fact that everyone seemed nonplussed about it was weird. He was NUTS and I mean in the heavily medicated, some-day-going-to-be-committed kind of way. He openly talked about his old pet - a marijuana plant whose name I've now forgotten. If only cameras were rolling for that one... My kids must have been meant to be because I didn't run. Other women might have answered the call of the Long Island Railroad that very night and hopped on the next train to Penn Station. I remember looking at Barbara laughing it all off and thinking she had a much better sense of humor than I thought. I didn't run. I stayed. Their secret was out, they had just as much crazy, maybe even more, in their family than mine. They just drove better cars.
I'm pretty sure the years that followed and our utter confusion dealing with each other prompted more than a few Gin and Tonics. In retrospect, I guess she felt I stole her son away before she was ready to let go. These days I'm beginning to understand how difficult that must have been. I think she had imagined a life for him that was more familiar and had hoped he'd marry the girl around the corner in their neighborhood. The one who was Jewish and whose father might have been an accountant or worked in the garment industry. The girl who kept up with those ever changing Long Island fashion trends I could never understand and thought were ridiculous. Someone whose wardrobe was not monochromatic and black. The girl who could be counted on to keep the status quo and maybe set up house on the north shore in some place nice like Syosset or Jericho. You know, a town with good school system. Instead, her son ran off to live in the Bat Cave in Riverdale with a shiksa of all things and ended up far away in the woods of Westchester County with her grandchildren raising chickens in the backyard. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if my daughter brought home someone whose background was vastly different from ours. I'd like to think that my definition of "alien intruder" in my child's life would actually involve coming from outer space, and not just someone from across a bridge or two, but I haven't lived it yet. I suspect when and if it happens, Barbara will be somewhere smiling, thinking, "See, it's not so easy, is it Chris?"
What Barbara never knew is that she drove me insane because she was just as alien to me. She was so unlike my own mother and any other mom I knew growing up. My mother was a single parent who leaned toward martyrdom and a fashion sense I affectionately call "homeless chic". My mother worked all day, cooked, cursed, prayed, prayed some more, and almost never put herself first. By the time I was older my mother had done enough parenting and pretty much set me free. I always thought that was a good thing. That kind of freedom made me pretty fearless back then. Barbara, on the other hand, was much younger and never one to wear even an unpressed t-shirt. She was perfectly dressed always, even when walking the dog. She took care of herself, her home, her car - no detail was left unattended. She knew the right clothes, jewelry, and bag to buy. Louis Vuitton was one of her favorites. I can still see her in her full length mink coat with the cursive B embroidered on the inside liner. Barbara, unlike my own mother, wanted to know every detail of her sons lives. She lived for them and worried constantly about how they would handle a simple cold, even long after they turned 30. Barbara and my mother were 180 degrees away from each other on the parenting spectrum. I think it was inevitable that those worlds collided once in a while.
Fast forward, twenty years and now I'm the mother on the receiving end of the bittersweet stage of life when you can see the nest is going to start emptying in a few years. I look back with a lot more compassion for that feisty mother in law I once knew and drove crazy with my very different outlook on life. When I booked a trip to Ireland with our first child only ten months old, Barbara worried. When she found out I had only booked one night in advance at a bed and breakfast and we were "winging it" the rest of the week, I'm pretty sure it confirmed my insanity in her eyes. Her first granddaughter was the love of her life and we were taking risks she did not like. We made many decisions that perplexed Barbara and we drove her crazy in those early years. She did get to meet all of her grandchildren and share some important moments in their lives, but unfortunate circumstances, then illness pulled them apart a few years ago. I wish it could have been different. Perhaps, now she can see what she couldn't know when she was living so far away. I can only hope she now knows how much her grandchildren loved her and wanted to visit. If she can see our family now, some things might surprise her. Painful as it might be for me to admit it, I'm not exactly the most hands off mom around and it turns out in some subtle ways I'm more like Barbara as a mother than my own. After all these years, I've finally come to realize that's not such a bad thing after all.
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