My mother-in-law was no stereotype

Monday evening, my mother-in-law died.

Bouquet from yard in vase made by young Wildebeest, given to Alice on day before her death.

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.”

Rest in power, Aretha

Today we mourn the loss of Aretha Franklin. I am grateful for the many hours spent listening, singing along with and dancing to her music. She was an extraordinary artist (and I’m just now learning about her social justice work including a willingness to post bail for Angela Davis). I am the farthest thing from a religious person, but this version of Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy gives me goosebumps. Every single time.

Do yourself a favor and spend your next five minutes with the Queen of Soul.

Rest in power, Aretha.

Carrie Fisher: A mother of nature

I’ve been offline most of the day and checked in to discover Carrie Fisher has died. It’s hard to comprehend. She seemed indestructible. Tiny and fierce. A forever force of nature.

I remember reading POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE the first time. I remember thinking that Carrie Fisher was hilarious, yes, but also incredibly insightful about what it means to be human. She was so damned smart and brave. And generous. She went to her dark places and brought that scariness out into the light as a gift to us. Her writing, tweets, and interviews were a constant reminder that none of us is alone on this spinning ball, and that since we’re in this thing together, we might as well share laughter along the way.

Holding the copy Zippy bought to replace the one he accidentally dropped in a lake while reading.

This is the copy Zippy bought for me to replace the one he accidentally dropped in a lake while on vacation.

There’s lots of gold in the book’s “postcards” written by character Suzanne Vale, but this portion from the Epilogue speaks to me now:

[…I still don’t think I feel the way I perceive other people to feel. I don’t know if the problem lies in my perception or my comfort. Either way I come out fighting, wrestling with my nature, as it were. And golly, what a mother of nature it is. Sometimes, though, I’ll be driving, listening to loud music with the day spreading out all over, and I’ll feel something so big and great—a feeling as loud as the music. It’s as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere all at once. …] 
Happy New Year,
Suzanne

Carrie Fisher lived a life big and bold, and I’m glad her skin kept her here with us as long as it did. Wherever you are now, Carrie, I hope there’s nonstop loud music and feelings so big and great. You were one helluva writer and human being. Rest in peace.

 

 

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Coco, RIP

cocofor-rip

Joined the family August 18, 2005
Said goodbye November 17, 2016

You came to us as Cocoa, and Wildebeest changed that to Coco.
Over the years you were our Coco Sue, Susan, and Speckled Snake Dog.
No matter the name, you were always our funny friend
with the big eyes and catfish whiskers.
You could run faster and see farther than anyone,
and now you can do that forevermore.
Plus eat all the poop you want.

Rest in peace, Coco Sue.

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Leon Russell, RIP

Leon Russell went to the big piano bench in the sky last night. When Zippy told me the news, I felt deflated. But I didn’t realize how hard his death had hit me until I put on “A Song for You.” I couldn’t finish listening because the grief was too intense.

Leon Russell was a singer-songwriter who created music I was ALWAYS thrilled to hear whether it came on the radio, popped up on an iPod shuffle, or was background music in a shopping mall. I never wanted to tune him out. Leon Russell’s music made me smile, made me feel, and inspired me to sing along. His voice was unusual, his phrasing could trip me up, and his piano playing made me want to dance.

leon-russell-albums

These two albums reside in my record cabinet. I don’t remember when I bought the Best Of, but have a very clear memory of buying Looking Back. I’d spent the day at the beach and was in the neighborhood supermarket in West Los Angeles when I passed a bin of deeply discounted albums. (I remembered this being a cut-out, but when I pulled it out of my cabinet just now, I was surprised to see there are no notches in the cardboard). This particular Leon Russell record was being sold for about $2, and I snatched it up. Any Leon Russell is great Leon Russell, right? He could sing the phone book and I’d listen.

Well, I got home and discovered that Looking Back was purely instrumental. Leon didn’t even sing! Not only that, Leon didn’t play the piano! On Looking Back, Leon played the harpsichord!

I have to admit I didn’t listen to that album a whole lot over the years (and I doubt any radio stations ever played cuts from it), but I’m still glad I bought it. That record represents an enduring memory from my time in LA. Also? It’s fun to think of Leon now playing in that super-band in the sky, shredding on his harpsichord while Leonard Cohen plays piano.

Thank you for all the music, Leon.
Rest in peace.

 

 

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Friday Five: The Farewell-to-Lebowski Edition

On Wednesday, July 10, we said goodbye to Lebowski. We adopted The Dude (known as “Harry” on his adoption papers) from the Dumb Friends League in November of 2004. I went to the shelter with the intent of adopting another female cat (I’d had two females before, Diva and Isis), and instead ended up with the friendliest (male) cat I’d ever met.

Lebowski would run ahead of us and flop down on the floor, inviting us to rub his tummy. At which time, he’d purr in the loudest tones. Writhing in ecstasy.Lebowski 027Making that constant contactWhen people came to the house, he’d hang back a minute or two but then stroll out to make introductions. Lebowski viewed everyone as potential friends and ear-scratchers.Batman and Lebowski 002He had a good relationship with Coco (pictured below) and Zoey, the two shelter dogs we adopted in the year after he joined us. He tolerated their sniffing and nuzzling, and he repaid them with friendly swats on their heads from where he perched atop their crates.Dogs and Cat 026This summer was The Gift of Lebowski. Expectations were that he’d die in May but he stayed with us for almost another ten weeks. I spent most of the summer with him. Lots of time on the bed or couch, but increasingly either on the deck, the patio, or wandering the backyard. He had quality of life as he watched (and sometimes chased) the butterflies and stalked beetles. In the final days, he was happy to curl up beneath the yarrow and valerian where he could observe everything around him. Lebowski 004I like to say that Lebowski won the lottery when we brought him home because for the rest of his life he had four devoted friends who loved on him and satisfied his hedonism. But that lottery feeling went both ways. I’m forever grateful the female cat I’d picked out to meet/adopt didn’t want anything to do with me and that the shelter volunteer then said, “You know who’s a really nice cat you should meet . . .”

Words can’t do him justice.