What a phrase, "Mother in law." It sounds sour, almost bitter, or perhaps that is because like my aversion to the use of stepmother, our society has come to connote ugliness with mother's in law. I was 18 when my own mother died, and over many years came to call my dearest friend/sister Denise's mum, Mom Cormie. Knowing her and watching her and her husband Donald's marriage inspired me in so very many ways and made me believe in happy endings, even for me.
Then I got married and I got a mom, dad, two grandmothers, two sisters, a brother, and numerous extended relatives. Quite a shock to the system for a person who had been content to build a little family out of friends, but a welcome one. As a child, I never knew the joys or woes of extended family. My only living grandmother I met exactly twice, she was drunk the entire time we visited, and the tension between her and my own mother was palpable, even to a child as young as me. I imagined what it might be like to have a Daddy, to get to go shopping with a Grandma for an Easter dress or have a Grandpa fix my bike.
I longed for ridiculously large family gatherings where someone drank too much, burped at the table, or otherwise embarrassed their mothers. So when I married into the Morfeld clan I got that, I got obnoxious sibling relationships and the stress and strain of 20 something year old children and parents reestablishing relationships as adults. I became pregnant after Erich and I were engaged and met with out parish priest, but not before the actual vows, oops. To say I was humiliated about having to tell my soon to be in laws about, "my condition," would be an epic understatement. I was mortified, I knew how disappointed my soon to be mother in law, Mary would be in us, and frankly, I wasn't pleased with us or our libidos either.
But we got past it, and forged ahead, and got married. I loved them all, but they didn't belong to me, they were Erich's family. I felt like the police negotiator sometimes, trying to be a bridge between my often contentious husband and his family-but then I gave birth, and everything changed.
Mary, who had been reserved in some ways, sat holding my first born, her first grandchild, at the foot of my hospital bed, and looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, "Oh Patti, this is so wonderful. I just couldn't imagine this." I felt the ice melt in my own heart, because I knew he wasn't mine or hers, he was ours. Common ground in 8 pounds and 6 ounces.
Time hurried along, I became pregnant with our second child so that they would be close companions, gave birth to Henry, and then like the spring wildfires in Texas, our lives became an inferno of grief and pain. Her son, my husband-dead at 31. Her grandchildren, my children-fatherless. How? Why?
Mary has always been an avid learner and teacher and so was Erich's dad, Dale. When I decided to return to college right away, I knew their support would be a given for me, and it was. Mary and I survived on Henry that year-his sweetness and need for us kept our hands occupied, our hearts lightened, if only for a sacred moment. But the loss of a child is a wound that never heals. Long a practicing Catholic, Mary embraced the customs of old fashioned Catholic grief and began wearing all black, praying and meditating with committment. It's interesting for me now, because I never asked her what she prayed about, I can assume she prayed to understand, to hurt less, to heal. But those would be my prayers.
I know though that after a year of grief and prayer, work, finishing her PhD, and caring for Dale-she changed. She pushed through it, she still carries the wound to be sure, but it is part of her now-it doesn't define her or her life, but her willingness to slog through the pain has allowed her to see more in others and herself that I think she ever saw before.
I finished college, went to work, and hit a lot of potholes-most of my own making. I lived with her and Dale for a time and then ran away and tried to make it "on my own." I didn't. But, when I prayed and finally reached bottom, I realized that I didn't have to do it alone. No one was asking me to be Wonder Woman-there was a place for me to go to, I only need ask.
When I wrote and asked to come home, to bring the boys and live and work and get my shit together I was welcomed, but it was after the move that I realized that she had truly become my mother when she told me,"It occurs to me that you have never been a day to day part of a family. Made mistakes and been forgiven, wrecked the car, broken curfew, and still been loved. I don't think you understand that you will always be welcome here."
She was right. I have been blessed by many dear close friends I consider my relations over the years, but I never set up a family living arrangement with them and now at 39, I finally got it.
I am remarried now and she is widowed. We are separated by miles and the distance has been a painful adjustment. Our late night talks, her encouragement for me with the boys, her devoted example as a grandmother is lacking face to face and while I will see her soon, I know the visit will be too short.
She continues to surprise me and I think even herself by all that she continues to learn and the ways in which she has grown. I think the loss of Erich left her believing if she could survive that-she could survive anything and she might as try it all. What better example could I have in a mother? How grateful to call her mine.