I have a long, raw silk, fuchsia scarf—a color so electric that it screams “Morning person,” which I am not. But I wear it because the shade is silly enough to make me laugh, and the silk is soft enough to make me feel pampered. Mostly, though, I wear it because it was a gift from my daughter-in-law.
There’s no easy way to be a mother-in-law: if you offer suggestions you will be intrusive, if you ask for something you will be annoying. Your flattery may be misinterpreted as matronizing (Not a word? Well, it should be.), and your silence may be read as condemnation. Once your child marries, you will have to overcome the image of every meddling mother-in-law through history to be regarded as anything other than a punchline.
My mother-in-law was a proud Lutheran minister’s wife who had seen her son through one divorce, and didn’t want to see him through a second. When she met me—a Jew, 15 years his junior, her first response was, “Uffda.” No one had to translate it for me: I knew it meant, “Oy.”
That was just the beginning, as she proved to be adept at endearing herself to me one minute, and infuriating me in the next. She would introduce herself as my “mother-in-love” to my friends and family, then reorganize my kitchen to her liking. She would share vivid and intimate stories about her childhood, then raise a disapproving eyebrow to mine. She would prepare batches of glazed walnuts especially for me, then use the word “little” to describe everything I did. She was an expert at micro-managing every family gathering, and, oh, yes, she was determined to “save” me; she wanted desperately for me to convert.
But despite it all, I couldn’t dislike her. She was domineering and intolerant, but she was equally sympathetic and loving—a lot like my own mother.
I suppose that’s why the two women became friends. They were from different worlds and cultures—Gen was third-generation Norwegian-American; my mother was born in Hungary; Gen was raised in her mother’s Minnesota hotel; my mother grew up in a Brooklyn apartment, but they were tough, smart, ambitious, and self-possessed women who had survived the Depression, World War II, marital difficulties, child-rearing, and breast cancer. They understood each other.
As the years passed, and my step-children grew up, fell in love, and married, I began to understand both of them better. When my mother and Gen’s husband died within a month of each other, I had to suppress my grief to support her. Because of the consuming nature of her loss (she had been married 67 years), I didn't expect her to recognize mine. But somehow, she found a moment to grasp my hand and say, “I’m so sorry...I guess I’m your mama now.”
I look at the words on this page, the most spontaneously generous words she had ever said to me, words I couldn’t even repeat to my husband until recently, and I still find them painful. I had just lost one mother, how could I bear to lose another?
She had become such a presence in my life.
So I wear my daughter-in-law’s gift, and wear it proudly. Because I'm a mother-in-law, and I’ve been where she is, and I remember....
Happy Mother’s Day.
Causes Barbara Froman Supports
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Greater Chicago Food Depository
Lawyers for the Creative Arts