Back when Art proposed to me (well, when he asked whether I thought we ought to get married), I was happy with the prospect of our new life together, but I had no idea what to expect in terms of his family, which was about to become *my* family. I had already had the experience of one set of in-laws, plus a whole raft of the mothers of my boyfriends. Let me tell you, I was scared.
Over the years I had come to expect that the women who would come to know me through their sons were not necessarily thrilled with me. I seemed to have a knack for choosing men who were just a little too close to Mom, and therefore, mothers who were just a little too attached to their sons. Most memorably, one of these Moms had taken one look at me, scanned me up and down and pronounced, “You’re obviously a very weak person!”.
So on I soldiered in the wilderness of all single girls trying to date their way to happiness.
I was lucky. Art appeared just as I had given up — just as I had reached the stage in my life where I had made my peace with the strong possibility that I would never remarry, never have a family beyond my family of origin, and (the silver lining to all of this gloom) would never have to face another potential (or actual) mother-in-law again.
So it was with great trepidation that I picked up the receiver for the first time to speak to Art’s mother. I was sure she would be resentful of me, sure she would find good reason to be critical of his choice, sure she would cold-shoulder me and find me unworthy of her precious golden boy, her eldest son. I remember gripping the phone with both hands, shutting my eyes tight, and waiting for her to lower the boom. So, imagine my surprise when I heard this sweet, benevolent woman at the other end saying, “Is this Robin? I’m so pleased to finally speak with you. Art has told me so much about you — all good!” and I could actually hear her smiling over the phone. She then continued, “I was so worried that he would be alone in his declining years!” . (Quite a turn of phrase, and it broke the ice!) I opened my eyes, which were now brimming with tears of gratitude, just as I suspected hers were, too.
A couple of years later, Art and I traveled to Connecticut for the first time as a married couple. I met my in-laws in person for the first time. Art’s father was a gentle, soft-spoken man who said little but made every word count. He had played in a square dance band for over fifty years and had the heart of a true musician. He treated me with great kindness and compassion. When Ed picked us up at the airport, I saw clearly where Art had learned how to be a gentle-man. My first instinct when Art introduced me was to give my new father-in-law a big bear hug. But I was still nervous about what would happen when we got back to my in-laws’ house. Would Marge accept me? Had our lovely conversations over the phone given me false hope? Was I about to become that old cliché, the long-suffering and marginalized interloper who had “stolen her baby”?
And what did Marge do? She greeted me with open arms and held me tight. She welcomed me into her cozy kitchen and into her family as easily as if she had been my birth mother. When she introduced me to her friends and neighbors she referred to me as her “newest daughter”. She put fresh flowers in the guest room and brand new sheets on our bed. She tolerated, and even welcomed our lavish public displays of affection. She allowed me help in the kitchen, rather than demanded it. (And believe me, I’m no Betty Crocker!).
Which brings me to the next point: Over the years, Marge has quietly taught me how to be a “balabust”– She doesn’t know the word, but it’s Yiddish and it means a woman who knows how to make a house a home. That’s not to say that I hadn’t learned the basics at my own mother’s knee. I knew how to iron (I’m not patient enough, but I know how), I knew how to put together a dinner party, I knew how to make a bed and I had the good upbringing that gave me a certain ability to be at ease in a conversation and to treat guests with courtesy and respect. (My mother taught me never, NEVER, to allow guests to visit without offering them food.) So I mean no disrespect to my Mom. She was great.
But Marge continued where Mom left off. After all, I had left home at eighteen, so my domestic education had been cut short. Over the past twenty years, Marge has generously given me inside tips about cooking — her recipe for pie crust (hand written and proudly displayed on my refrigerator), her secrets about how to remove all manner of stains from the laundry. She has allowed me to be present while she made delicious soups, and I found out that the trick to thickening a vegan soup is potatoes and a food processor. From Marge I learned the elegant economy of washing clothes in cold water (saves energy, saves you having to sort by color, good for the environment, and good for the pocketbook). How to stretch your money at the grocery store (coupons). The best way to reseal cellophane packages (clothes pins). How to find extra storage space in the kitchen (hanging baskets from the ceiling). The list goes on and on, and every day, it seems, I discover another kindness, another pearl of wisdom she has bestowed upon me. She has demonstrated how to create an atmosphere of warmth and harmony within the home (too complicated to explain in twenty-five words or less). And she has treated me as an honored guest and member of the family when I visited her home — not an easy task, since on the surface, you would not think the two go hand-in-hand. Sometimes I sensed I was underfoot, but she never complained. I could go on and on, but maybe you get the idea.
Mothers-in-law often get a bad rap, and perhaps, many of them live up to their reputation. But daughters-in-law can be less than perfect, too. And with all of my own faults and shortcomings, Marge has treated me with more than respect. She has treated me with unfailing compassion and love. Recently I have begun to call her “Mom”. I couldn’t bring myself to use that word with her when my own mother was alive. I was afraid of being disloyal. She always understood that. But it feels as if my own mom has given me permission. Lizi will always live in my heart as my first mother, the one who gave me life, and the one who was there for me through every sickness, every crisis, every broken heart, every failure and disappointment, my first confidante, my mentor. But Marge is my “other mother”. The one who has, with uncommon grace, taken me under her wing as a daughter, a sister to her other children, and as a friend. The one who has entrusted me with the role of caretaker to her grown son. She is much more than my mother-in-law, she is my mother-in-love.