|With my stylish MIL in happier times|
My mother-in-law literally used to give me the clothes off her back.
It happened more than once that she’d be wearing a stylish shirt or sweater and I’d say, “M-, I love that sweater.”
“Do you want it?” she’d say. “Take it!” Then she’d hand it to me despite my (feeble) protests, saying something like “I have so many others” or “But it looks better on you than it does on me.”
It would then inevitably become one of my favorite and most-complimented sweaters because she was one of the most stylish people I knew.
Her generosity took other forms too. Like the elaborate meals she used to cook for us, not permitting us to lift a finger in the preparation or the clean-up.
“I’ll do the dishes tomorrow!” she used to say, though she was 78 with MS, and we were fit and mid-40s and very capable of washing dishes (even if we were stuffed with chicken piccata and chocolate cake). I’m embarrassed to say we always obeyed.
I used to say I won the “mother-in-law lottery.” Instead of a mother-in-law who didn’t think I was good enough for her son, or who was crazy, or just plain annoying, I got a mother-in-law who made me feel special, beautiful, and brilliant.
She had a talent for making people feel good.
Also a talent for looking good. If once I’d thought getting older meant letting myself go or falling out of step fashionwise, she taught me that didn’t have to be the case. Her hair was usually a perfect honey-blonde, her outfit something hip from Nordstrom’s.
And yet, her sister – also a beloved figure in my life – presented a contrasting yet equally vibrant picture of old age. She had a head full of unapologetic white hair, wore track suits so bright they hurt your eyes, and was full of energy in her 80s.
They were fun to be around. They made me feel like getting old was possible, and possibly not so bad. In my own family, everyone died before 70. My dad and my grandparents were all long gone by the time I met my mother-in-law in 2007. So I needed older and wiser people like her in my life.
Especially after my mom died in 2012 at 68. The pampering presence of my mother-in-law became even more of a comfort to me then. So did her own hard-won perspective on life and loss.
Occasionally I thought of her as a second mom, but in reality, she acted more like a grandmother – never criticizing, always adoring, lavishing love and attention on me.
Then, in late 2016, my husband and I split up. I had naïve hopes that my relationship with her would survive the messy divorce. That once the dust settled, we’d get back to the business of being besties.
So I reached out to her with cards and email. Tried to stay in touch. But the divorce became final a year ago, and more time than that has passed without a response from her. And I’m just starting to accept that our relationship is a thing of the past.
It hurts, of course, but I understand. And when it hurts a lot, I remind myself of something she said to me at the beginning of the divorce process, before I moved away.
“You’ll always be my little girl,” she said. It was quick and whispered. She said it almost in passing, when she was helping my ex move out of our house.
She had never called me her little girl before. But of course I was. I was the daughter she’d never had, plus adoring granddaughter rolled into one.
Which is why, although I might not be in her life anymore, I like to think I’m still in her heart. In my own special room, eating homemade chocolate cake and staying forever warm in a spontaneously gifted sweater from Nordstrom’s.