I promised to dedicate a post to my mother-in-law for her birthday, which was the 16th. The last time I saw her alive was on her birthday in the year 2001. She died sometime the following week, alone in her apartment, while we were traveling. That fact is consistent with the mystique I associate with remembering her. I’ll never be certain who she really was, although I have many theories. I have been told that she was a concert pianist as a young woman and that she played for Rachmaninoff when she was 16. I have seen the signed program portrait that he gave her. I did hear her play as an accompanist for our community theater. She was definitely capable, even with arthritis. I wish I had known the passion of her younger years. I saw in her such a mixture of joy and anxiety as a mature woman. She had a playfulness and sense of humor that I found completely amusing, so much more casual than my own mother’s. She was a grade school teacher with the ability to relate to people in a very natural way. She was sentimental about cats and dogs and friendship and children. As I learned more about her relationship with her mother, though, a very painful history emerged, steeped in shame and punishment. I’m sure that was the root of the depression that lingered throughout her life. She carried scars and secrets with her to the grave. We only learned about them when her sister-in-law spoke up after the funeral. I imagine, though, that she would have liked to allow the sunniest parts of her personality to shine through unclouded. It was her ability to laugh in the face of fear that I illustrated at her memorial service when I told this story:
In June of 1992, she came out to visit us from California. We had only been living in Illinois since August, and Jim had been through an emergency cardiac procedure that January. She came out eager to see him recovering and to bask in the hugs of her four grandchildren. He had a scheduled check-up during her stay, and learned that his arteries were even more clogged than in January. He was advised to undergo double bypass surgery as soon as possible. He was 31. She decided to extend her stay indefinitely and see what happened next. Her anxiety was tremendous, and so was mine. Her sense of humor, however, surfaced much more readily. It was her coping strategy, and it matched his perfectly. The day of the surgery was stormy and dangerous. A tornado touched down in the vicinity of the hospital and cut out power just as he was coming out of surgery and off the breathing machine. A frantic nurse grabbed a mouth tube and bag to squeeze air into his lungs. Marni and I were shaking all over and clutching hands as we watched. Moments later, the generators kicked in and a calmer air prevailed. Jim was breathing unassisted, and he was motioning me to come closer to tell me something. I leaned in to hear him say in a hoarse whisper, “They found out what was wrong with my heart.” “Yes, dear…” “When they opened me up, they found this!” His hand moved under the bedsheets by his side. I looked down and discovered that he was clutching the broken figure off of one of his bowling trophies. “The Bowler” was a running gag we had started the first year of our marriage. He surfaced in Christmas stockings, random drawers, and even in the bouquet of roses Jim brought onstage after my senior voice recital. How in the world did Jim manage to stage another practical joke on the day of his heart surgery?!! Well, he had an accomplice, of course. His mother, who smiled mildly and innocently at the end of the bed while I looked around in utter amazement. Then we all tried to keep from laughing too hard, only because it was so painful for Jim when he tried to join in.
Recovering from heart surgery, smiles intact.
So, whatever troubles lay at the core of my mother-in-law’s psyche, I appreciate that she had the desire to live happily and tried to do that as much as possible. She truly loved her children and grandchildren and enjoyed so many pleasures with them. She shared what joy she found with a lot of kids during her lifetime as a teacher, and I’m sure many are grateful and remember her to this day.