By Rebecca Agiewich of rebeccaagiewich.blogspot.com
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 shirt or sweater that I liked 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 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.
She loved the holidays, too, and often hosted the family gatherings. Even if she didn’t, whatever holiday dish she happened to cook (brine-roasted turkey or apple pie) was the star of the show. Her warmth and delicious cooking infused every celebration.
When it came to my birthday, she adored the fact that I was big on celebrating it. She loved feting other people (not herself). For my birthday, there would always be dinner on the town and a pile of clothes and jewelry more au courant than anything I could ever pick out for myself.
Even as a spoiled little girl my parents didn’t dote on me quite the way she did. And I soaked it all up.
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.
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.
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.
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 more than two years has passed without a response from her. And I’ve finally started to accept that our relationship is a thing of the past.
It hurts, of course. In many different ways. I worry about what she thinks of me now, post-divorce. For example, does she really call me a “poisonous snake” like my ex once claimed?
It’s practically impossible to imagine those words coming out of her mouth. (Much easier to imagine my ex putting them there). So I try not to dwell on that.
Mostly I just miss her. Especially on holidays or on my birthday, which all seem much less festive now. Or when I look at my threadbare closet that used to be full of clothes from her.
I also miss the barely-earned avalanche of praise and compliments she used to heap on me.
“Rebecca!” she’d exclaim breathily, if I happened to see her right after going to the hair salon, “You look fabulous!”
Or, upon tasting a dish I’d cooked (and believe me, I’m not a great cook), “Rebecca, this is delicious!”
If only I could be so kind to myself.
My ex used to say about her that if you opened up a dictionary to the word “Mom,” there should be a picture of her there. Meaning that she was the quintessential mother – nurturing, self-sacrificing, always there for her children.
That image always made us laugh, but only because it was so true.
In the end, though, she was his mom, not mine. So, if she had to choose sides, she was going to choose him, right? I can’t blame her for that.
Now that I’ve lost her, I no longer have a maternal figure in my life. I feel much lonelier and more adrift, so much more like the orphan that I actually am. Because sometimes, no matter how old you are, you need a mom to put a metaphorical band-aid on your knee, or remind you that you’re special.
So it’s up to me to invoke this maternal energy when I need it. And when I want to feel connected to my mother-in-law, I think 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 this moment. 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.
A version of this post was originally published on rebeccaagiewich.blogspot.com.
About the Author
Rebecca Agiewich is a novelist , essayist, and creative writing teacher who lives in Seattle and Mexico. Her novel, BreakupBabe, was based on her popular blog of the same name, and published by Ballantine Books. http://rebeccaagiewich.blogspot.com