Monday evening, my mother-in-law died.
Contrary to what books and movies would have us believe, not all mothers-in-law are control freaks who believe no one is good enough for their sons. Some are kind, loving, and supportive.
It didn’t feel that way at the start. The first time I met Alice was when Zippy brought me to his parents’ home in Colorado for Christmas in 1988. At the time, he and I had a long-distance relationship between our two California cities. When it was bedtime, Alice showed me where I’d sleep, which wasn’t where Zippy was sleeping. I remember the depths of loneliness I felt lying in that room in an unfamiliar house filled with people I didn’t know. Loneliness plus resentment for the uptight mother of my boyfriend.
That’s the first and last thing she ever did to upset me. No exaggeration. And after I got to know Alice, I realized her decision to put me in that bedroom by myself wasn’t a comment on me or my relationship with her son, but because she didn’t want to make assumptions.
Alice welcomed me with open arms and later extended her endless love to Wildebeest and Zebu. If Alice was a stereotype, it was as a devoted grandmother. She genuinely loved spending time with her grandchildren. Wildebeest told me a story yesterday about the time Alice and Stu took care of Zebu and him for a weekend while Zippy and I went out-of-state for my high school reunion. He’s foggy on the details — maybe he and his brother were fighting over a toy or complaining of boredom — but he remembers it was the only time Grandma got mad at them.
I believe it. Alice was the queen of easy-going. She loved family and friends, and was always the first to laugh at herself. She’d do something — such as accidentally sitting on her camera in the church pew at her other son’s wedding — then let out her trademark “woooo,” followed by a giggle. One time, she agreed to help me make curtains for the boys’ bedroom. After many, many laughter-filled minutes trying to figure out how to thread the sewing machine needle and bobbin, we gave up and called her capable seamstress neighbor who set things right while Alice and I laughed some more.
Once, Alice agreed to accompany me to a doctor’s appointment where she stayed out in the car with the boys. Toddler Zebu was still very attached to me and didn’t handle separation well. When he began crying, Alice struggled to get him out of the car seat, growing more confused as his wailing reached epic proportions. In later years, Alice told the story of how Wildebeest leaned in at that moment to say, “Read the directions, Grandma.” She then read the instructions on the car seat and was able to release Zebu and calm him. But in her telling, all credit went to Wildebeest.
Alice was generous to a fault. She feared and disliked cats, yet cut out cat pictures for the birthday cards she’d make me. When she flew to Alaska to help out after Zebu was born, she told me to let her know if any of her behavior bothered me. She said this knowing that the recent visit from my own mother had caused more problems than it alleviated. Once, after Stu and I had a spirited conversation about our differing political views, in which he was literally hopping mad and called me a communist, Alice forced him to phone me the next day to apologize. Honestly, I thought it was pretty funny seeing my father-in-law so wound up, but Alice didn’t want to risk hurt feelings. Family mattered.
Alice was nineteen when she had Zippy (Stu was twenty-one). Alice had four children by the time she was thirty, a mind-boggling realization when I had my first child at 30 years and barely considered myself mature enough to be a parent. Over the years, Alice and Stu apologized to their kids for supposed mistakes they’d made and opportunities they hadn’t provided. But from my perspective, that young and very poor couple accomplished a miracle: they raised four well-adjusted children who not only loved their parents very much, but also love and support each other.
Over the three weeks following Alice’s heart surgery at the end of July, those four children worked together to help their ailing mother. They coordinated efforts so Alice, who was deaf and suffering dementia, would never be alone in an unfamiliar place. Under increasingly scary and difficult circumstances, those four hung together in their shared goal to ease their mother’s discomfort.
And now Alice’s smile and laughter are only memories. Our hearts are shattered, but I’m deeply grateful for the years I had with my mother-in-law. My wish for her now, wherever she is, is that there are buffets rather than menus. Because for her many fine qualities, Alice struggled to make decisions. Eating out with her was a study in patience. But maybe there are menus and waitstaff. In which case, as Alice was fond of saying, “I hope it all works out.”