Three memories of my mother-in-law
Hollywood loves to poke fun at the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. In fact, I wonder how many of these relationships are really as awful or conflict-riddled as portrayed on screen. Because it’s Mother’s Day and because my relationship with my mother-in-law has been by and large a good one, I want to share three of my memories of Nina, who is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s.
Let me start by saying that we couldn’t be more different. She is white, I am Latina. She is conservative, I am liberal. But we share some similarities: as eldest daughters, our birthright is bossiness; as Texans, a well-made margarita is our first drink of choice; and as mother and wife respectively, she and I both love her son. My marrying John ensured that Nina and I would sometimes clash. Yes, there were times when I ranted to John about his mom’s attitudes or beliefs. But when push came to shove, she was kind and generous to me.
While in China on assignment in the mid-‘90s, I picked up a nasty flu. One morning shortly after my return home, I woke up with a horrible case of vertigo. John had already left to work, and I couldn’t get out of bed without the bedroom spinning around me. I managed to reach the phone on the nightstand, and within minutes Nina marched into the house and helped me out of bed, to the car and to the doctor.
Maybe because I was daughter-in-law and not daughter, Nina felt she could say what was really on her mind, let her hair down with me, so to speak. I confess that during a wedding once, upon first sight of the bride (a woman we knew only slightly), seeing the woman’s dress as somewhat beyond ostentatious, Nina turned to me and whispered, “Oh, shit.” We had to stifle our giggles in the solemn silence.
Other times, she made me laugh quite inadvertently. Like the time she read a draft of a novel I was trying to write. She called to give me her feedback, and started to say, “You know, here, in the part where you and John …” My first thought was, literally, “Huh?” Then my mind flew to the sex scenes, and I immediately interrupted: “You know it’s a novel, right, Nina? It’s fiction. This is not about me and John.” Of course not, she said, but she had to picture someone as the woman and her husband, so in her mind she imagined her son and yours truly, naturally. I absolutely had to laugh. But the fact that I felt comfortable letting her read my work and that she didn’t feel bad when I laughed at who she pictured in the starring roles probably says all I feel about our relationship.
In fact, in the ways that mattered, I could always count on her to have my back as much as my own mother did. How else to explain the extra vegetarian dishes at Thanksgiving and Christmas to accommodate my lifestyle? Or the dinner/movies/shopping invitations when John was out of town for work? Really, our relationship, rough spots and all, is more than I could ever have expected, and for her friendship, I am truly grateful. When I see her today, I’ll have to remind her of some our escapades, see if any of my words can get through to the memory bank clouded by dementia.