The first time I met my future mother-in-law, she stroked my hair. It was good to have another redhead around, she told me. Although our locks were different shades and textures: mine long, thick, and wavy; hers short, wiry, and tightly curled like phone wire. She told me I was a purty thing and her eldest was lucky to have me around.
Then she hugged me tight against her ample bosom and said, “Make yourself at home, Nina.”
This set me back on my feet and speechless for a moment. I was a good, Northern girl: courteous, polite, but chilly in demeanor. My family didn’t hug. Well, we hugged my grandparents when it was time to leave their house for Thanksgiving. But we certainly didn’t touch strangers. My family shook hands. My dad’s father, a retired Air Force colonel, insisted you salute him instead. No one touched me without asking first. And here’s this Southern woman who just met me throwing her arms around me and telling me to make myself comfortable — eat her food, sit on her couch, watch her tv, use her bathroom — and she just met me?
I stammered, “Th-thanks. Nice to meet you, Mrs –“
“Oh, you can call me Maw.”
Susan continued to make me feel welcome in her small, crowded home in Alabama. I came to family dinners — shyly and nervously at first, but eventually I came out of my shell — and she made sure I knew to help myself (read: get it myself) to as much food and drink as I wanted. We played Uno as a family at the kitchen table, which led to riotous laughter and the occasional arguments. In the hot, sticky evenings, we roasted marshmallows or played badminton in the backyard while the dogs nipped at flies. Those were M’s early college years when we were broke and bumbled down to their parents’ house on the weekends in a rusty Mustang, suffering through 48 hours of no air conditioning in either the car or the house just to do laundry.
But there would be times when I had nothing to do there. This was back before smartphones and WiFi. M would be off either repairing the Mustang or fixing one of the countless broken computers in that house, and I would sit at the kitchen table and try to pass the time. Usually, that meant putting up with the Alabama v Auburn game my father-in-law turned on, or, whatever B-level Sci-Fi movie Susan turned on in the off-season.
Susan, you see, was kind of a nerd. She loved these schlocky b-movies, but had no one to watch them with. I don’t remember when it happened or what movie we were watching, but one day, she was watching a movie in the living room while I glanced impassively from the kitchen and she burst out with a genial, “Oooh, you done it now! Get to hoppin! Gon’ now!”
I raised my head and thought, did my mother-in-law just riff MST3K-style on this movie?
Before I knew it, I had joined her in the living room, on the couch, so we could both watch the dumb movie and laugh along with it. And soon it became a non-tradition: if she turned on a bad movie, I made sure to watch it with her so she would laugh. That would last until either dinner was ready or more people joined us.
I got the sense from my mother-in-law that she, like me, felt like an outsider to the family sometimes. Despite the trappings of Southernisms — her accent, her cooking skills, her hospitality — Susan wasn’t from the South. She was a military brat and grew up in several states as well as Japan before settling in Bumblefuck, Alabama for the rest of her life. After graduating high school, she went straight into the military, met and married her husband (RAF) overseas, and had three children. Then they moved back to the States.
She never volunteered that information. She carried not a drop of braggadocio in her body. This woman I knew wanted simple things in life: build gardens, sew quilts, put together jigsaw puzzles, read her Bible quietly before bed. Meanwhile, the military men and women in my life never shut the fuck up about their trips to Vietnam that never happened, the Desert Storms they supported but never saw.
I ranted about my relationship with my own family members and she nodded and hummed with sympathy. But she never offered advice. I don’t know if that was a personal choice or if she didn’t have any to offer. When I calmed down, she just handed me a trowel and let me continue digging or showed me where I had messed up and told me where to finish.
She sewed so many beautiful quilts over the years. At one time, I took up quilting to see if I could be any good at it and she wholeheartedly supported me. On one visit, she gave me a giant Tupperwear container of fabric and said, “Have at it!” In response, I sewed my first practice quilt — an orange and orange plaid mini-quilt. It wasn’t perfect. The edges were frayed and uneven and the corners were slightly off by a quarter inch. When I showed the half-completed project to Susan, she held it up and said, “That’s pretty good. Keep going. You’re getting it.”
It was an encouraging Mom-thing to say. I finished the quilt and gave it to M to keep warm (because not only did the A/C not work on the Mustang, the heater didn’t either).
She loved jigsaw puzzles, just like my grandfather. I would join her at the table, pouring over the tiny cardboard pieces and sip tea or cans of Diet Rite. On those days, I didn’t ramble on about my obstinate family or laugh at a silly SciFi movie. We sat in silence, picked out pieces, and snapped them into place.
One puzzle was a picture of a large Thanksgiving dinner cornucopia, overflowing with vegetables, fruit, and wheat.
“I like this one,” I murmured, smoothing my hand over the half-completed surface. “I’ve always liked Thanksgiving.”
“Oh yeah?” She glanced up at me but returned to the puzzle.
“Yeah. It’s my favorite holiday. Much more than Christmas. All you have to do is eat.”
A few weeks later, she came to our house with that finished puzzle glued, mounted, and framed for me. “Because you said you liked it,” she told me. “Thought you might like to hang it in your kitchen.”
I still have it. When I look at it, I remember her and try to recall any of our conversations.
In the two years since Susan died, her loss only grows for me.
The euphemistic phrase would be, “she had demons.” But the truth is, she died of liver failure. The demons that plagued her are unique and common; present and hidden; silent and screaming. We all knew they would come for her, we just didn’t know it would be so soon and at such a rough time for the family.
During her funeral, I seethed with anger. I squeezed my spouse’s hand, let tears roll down my cheeks, and glared at the bodies in the seats around us. You should have had help, Maw, I thought. Someone here should have seen you suffer and offered you help. Someone who was physically closer should have stepped up.
One of the Five Stages is anger, right?
I carried that anger with me for a full year before I asked my therapist about it. “I know that no one could have helped her. But I can’t help but be angry anyway. Why am I so angry?”
She asked me, “Did you ever talk to your mother-in-law?”
“Sure. We talked.”
“No, I mean — did you ever have a conversation with her? What was the last memory you have of her?”
I tried to think.
We didn’t see each other much toward the end. M and I had moved to Atlanta and didn’t visit Alabama that often. A few months before we moved, we went to the house to have dinner. Afterward, my sister-in-law and I followed Susan into her bedroom and collapsed on her bed to chat. No big talks, no serious exchanges, just light talking and giggling.
Eventually, one of us told a gross story involving body fluids and that led to more gross stories, which led to the three of us rolling around on the bed, holding our sides and crying with laughter.
Fart jokes and poop stories. That’s what we were talking about. Nothing profound, or confessional.
I thought back to all the times I sat with Susan at the kitchen table or on the couch. When we watched movies, or put together puzzles, or sewed fabric squares, or dug in the garden — our conversations never grew beyond superficial and unobtrusive. Was it my place to ask more? What would I have asked?
Futile anger tires you out faster than justifiable anger. By the time the second anniversary of her death rolled around, I realized I was too tired to be angry at her death anymore. Occasionally, it will flare up like arthritis — hot and painful in my bones, but it fades when I remember it doesn’t help.
I think about her sometimes when I’m feeling out of place. I wonder if she ever stood at her ironing board, pressing down squares of gingham fabric, before gazing up through the kitchen window and remembering her chaotic childhood: the constant moving, the overseas travel, then her career in the military. I wonder if she recalled it fondly, wistfully, or disdainfully. I wonder what she prayed to God for every night.
I wonder if, had I asked, she would have given me advice.
I don’t know what to do with that.