I just learned that my former mother-in-law passed away today. I guess "mother-in-law" has become something of a standard for jokes in our society and there are whole books devoted to them. The relationship of a woman with her husband's mother can be fraught with all manner of potential problems; it's sort of a built-in standard that the bride must measure herself against.
This was different.
This woman was born in Iceland, and had been a nurse as a young woman. She always had a most charming accent, melodious and gentle. I met her in the winter of 1970. Her son and I had met in California, and he'd come to join me at the commune I lived in. After Thanksgiving, she telephoned to invite me and my two little children to come back to Green Bay for Christmas with her son. His parents very kindly sent train tickets so that the four of us could visit Wisconsin. We packed up and left, knowing that we wouldn't be returning to California. I had had a downright epiphany during the months we were in California: I am a natural-born, dyed-in-the-wool (so to speak) Midwesterner. I was not, by any definition, a californio and wouldn't be. Her son, henceforth "Mr Ex", had no particular affection for California either, and when we got onto that train with our dried fruits and nuts and genuine Hebrew Salami for the trip, it was with all of our possessions and no regrets.
All the way on the train, Mr Ex taught my children how to say "Good evening, Grandmother and Grandfather" and "Good day, Grandmother and Grandfather" in Icelandic. (Far-Far was American, but we knew he'd understand.) Incidentally, Lovely Daughter was four years old and #1 Son was two. The children of my first husband, they're biracial. Also uncommonly attractive, but I'm their mom. But they are.
Might I add here that returning to the Midwest was the best gift I could've had for the holiday. Living in a commune in a lower-middle-class small community near the Bay Area was hardly experiencing the best California has to offer, but it was a Season thing with me. I discovered that I don't just LIKE the change of seasons, I absolutely require it, for my existence. When we passed into the mountains in the train and I saw snow, I literally wept with joy.
We transferred to a commuter train in Chicago, and arrived in Green Bay mid-evening. The children politely said "Good evening, Grandmother" in Icelandic, and the tall, graceful woman with soft black curls smiled broadly and held out her arms to them, and to me. The ride in their car past the beautiful Christmas lights reflected, sparkling, on the snow was restorative to my soul and delighted the children.
When we arrived at their beautiful home - it represented everything that the commune we'd lived in did not. The home was lovely, comfortable, spacious and welcoming. We were shown to Mr Ex's boyhood room (he slept in his brother's room) and Mother T brought in Icelandic down comforters for us. There was a desk in the room, and in the drawers were Christmas coloring books and new crayons. We were all quite exhausted by the travelling, and were asleep in short order.
The next morning, we woke and dressed and came out to meet Mr Ex's two brothers and have breakfast. You know how there are meals that hang in the memory forever, for a variety of reasons? Mother T had made lacy-thin Icelandic pancakes with lingonberry preserves and an array of superb dishes including oysters Rockefeller, fluffy eggs, sausages and bacon, fresh juice and milk and coffee. After breakfast we went in to admire the Christmas tree, fragrantly piney, all shimmery and sparkly. Underneath it there were a lot of presents; Mr Ex's older brother said they'd all taken advantage of the opportunity to shop for little children. There was a smaller tree downstairs in the family room too.
Two weeks passed in the most delightful way as the happiest time I had had in years, literally. I, and my babies, were welcomed and it was, at every moment, filled with music, laughter, good food and family such as I hadn't experienced since my own childhood home was dissolved.
After New Year's (1971) Mother and Father T (by now "Amma" and "Far-Far") drove us to Madison where we found a very nice townhouse and settled in. Mr Ex looked into going to University; we looked for and found jobs (we worked at an Occult Bookshop, "Sanctum Oeneus", and oh, it was). In August we welcomed Son #2; the next February, on Leap Year Day, we married at a JP in the courthouse.
When my youngest was seven years old, Mr Ex and I divorced. And yet - in spite of that, not one of my birthdays ever went by but that I received a beautiful card from Mother T. She and Far-Far had moved to Virginia years before, and neither that nor the loss of her husband interrupted my birthday cards. Furthermore, we always received beautiful Christmas cards from her - AND Chanukah cards (she knew I was Jewish) and Passover cards and Mother's Day cards.
My #2 son was her first natural-born grandchild - she met him at Thanksgiving, 1972, where he was smaller than the turkey! He was always a great favorite of hers, and she meant as much to him as any grandmother has ever been loved by a grandchild -- more.
I am delighted to be able to report that my son was able to introduce to her his own children, who - whether or not they will remember her, are the beneficiaries of her life.
She was old, and she'd been my standard for kindness, elegance, lady-like manner, courtesy, thoughtfulness and beauty. Hers was a rich and full life. There is a Yiddish belief that there are, at any given time, Twelve Just People on the earth; should there ever come a time when there are not, when Twelve Just cannot be found, God will destroy the world instantly. This woman was undeniably One of the Just.
Goodbye, my dearest, cherished Mother T. I am saddened, my world -- THE world -- diminished by her loss.