Nina, my mother-in-law
I’m holding a colander, its metal dulled, nicked and dented, its three legs wobbly. Should it go or should it stay? I have a memory of family dinners, the colander sitting in the sink, filled with steaming noodles, and it tugs, threatens to unravel emotions wound up tight within me. We are exhausted; this is the end of a solid year of cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house since her move into residential care. The colander is just one of the hundreds of things we’re sorting.
My husband, John, has grieved the process of emptying this house. There is a singular pain to letting go of a childhood, of the rooms and floors where you grew up. My emotions stem from a different place. Going through my mother-in-law’s things is forcing me to reassess our relationship, to examine the kind of person I’ve been with her. Was I generous enough? Tolerant and kind enough? Did I show her the respect she deserved? In the sum of human interactions, where did she end and where did I begin, and what, after all, did it matter? I am plagued by a nagging certainty that there is something here – a lone object among the hundreds – that will reflect the balance of our relationship, and that I should keep as a memento.
This is what I ponder as I look for the colander’s proper place. I turn it in my hands, judge its emotional significance, then place it in the “give away” pile.
When I first met Nina some 20 years ago, I was immediately aware of our differences. Besides the most obvious one – I’m a Latina, and she is white – she harbored a traditionalism that I found foreign and discomforting. Nina was a stay-at-home mom who’d chosen the path of PTA and band booster meetings, while I had launched my journalism career at full throttle. In my 20s when I met her, I carried a chip on my shoulder about a lot of things – feminism, racism, politics – things that I sensed would set us up to clash in spectacular ways.
Yet, when John and I decided to live together shortly after I met his family, Nina and my father-in-law cheerfully loaded all my belongings onto a pickup truck and helped me move into John’s house. In one of those moments between carefully wedging armoires and dressers through the front door and planting heavy boxes on the carpeted floor, Nina pulled me aside and said, “Beatriz, I just hope this leads to a legal commitment one day.”
Our differences became more apparent when John and I followed through with that “legal commitment.” Nina had to twist my arm to register for wedding gifts. I just wanted to throw a big Mexican party where we could dance all night. She also volunteered to help me find the flowers, the cake and the venue.
And because I live 600 miles away from my own mother, Nina helped me shop for a wedding dress. (Probably because she suspected that left on my own I would select something far off the beaten path.) My inner tomboy loathed the idea of yards of fabric and lace. I’d made it pretty clear that I wasn’t going to have a train or a veil, and I may have even mentioned the word “elope.” We’d been to just two stores when I walked out of the dressing room in a simple body-hugging sheath. She took one look and said, “Oh Beatriz, this is the dress. I’m not going anywhere else.” I looked in the mirror, and she was … right! She was also right about where to get the flowers and order the cake.
But there were other issues where I insisted on making my own decisions. She wanted me to take John’s last name; I pointed out that my parents had given me a perfectly good name. It would be easier if I took his name, she insisted. Not for me, I said, since I would have to change my checking account, credit cards, Social Security.
In the years that followed, I sensed her disappointment, or perhaps puzzlement, about other choices John and I made – choices that I intuited she put squarely on my shoulders. Children for instance: we had none, and no plans to change that. Once in a while, she’d ask, “Are y’all going to have any kids?” But in time, she quit asking.
Early in our relationship, I was a strict vegetarian, something I suspect she found a little baffling. Yet, at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, she prepared enough vegetable side dishes so that I could partake fully of the meal. She thoughtfully made extra portions of the green bean casserole that I loved so much. And when she made spaghetti for informal Sunday dinners, she prepared the meat sauce that everyone else loved, and a vegetarian tomato-oregano sauce for me. There was something comforting about the smell of rolls and oregano, about the trickle of water seeping through the noodles in the colander.
There were things upon which we agreed in absolute terms. Margaritas, for instance. We both liked them frozen, with no salt. We both loathed raw onions on our enchiladas and loved Coach handbags. We also loved a sale.
Before Internet shopping took off, Nina was the queen of finding deals on anything I needed. Blouses, aluminum cookware, lamps – all I had to do was give her a size, a brand, a color, and within the hour she would be on the phone having found the the closest store with the item in stock, the best price and the 15-percent-off newspaper coupon. “You should have had your own TV show,” we teased her. “You could have called it Nina Shops.”
Over the years we became comfortable hanging together without John. If he was working and I was off, Nina would call to see if I wanted to meet for dinner or go watch a chick flick. Once, she traveled to El Paso with me to attend a family anniversary; at the dance, she joined my cousins and me on the dance floor and demonstrated a few steps of the bump and grind, as if she were just one of us. And for that moment, she was.
We did have the occasional blow-up. Casual remarks she made about some social issue often rattled one of the chips on my shoulder: A university program was giving preferential treatment to “minorities,” she’d say, and didn’t I think that was reverse discrimination? When I reported a story on home births, she shuddered and regaled me with all the things that could go wrong, saying that that’s what hospitals were for and weren’t these home birth advocates crazy? Any of these things were enough to send me ranting to John. How could his mother harbor such rigid beliefs as we entered the new millennium? Did she see the entire scope of these social issues, or was she simply clinging to her beliefs in insecurity?
On the whole, however, I felt pretty fortunate to have a mother-in-law who didn’t berate me behind my back, who found pleasure in my company. Her best friend often told me that Nina always spoke well of me, and that she was grateful ours was not the stereotypical antagonistic relationship portrayed by Hollywood.
And truth be told, often I was the one who called Nina and invited her out for a drink. Sometimes I genuinely craved her company; if I’d had a shitty day at work or if someone had really ticked me off, she would always take my side. But if I’m honest with myself, I have to confess: sometimes I felt I was doing Nina a favor with my friendship. Because I thought that she lived vicariously through me a little bit, that she enjoyed hearing about my journalistic escapades – the gang members in west Dallas, the plane flight across Cuba in a rattling Russian turboprop, climbing the Great Wall of China.
Still, she always had the ability to make me laugh, and we had plenty of genuine good times. We once attended a wedding together, just she and I. In the moments before the ceremony started, Nina joked that since the couple had lived together for so long, this was no blushing bride and she better not try to fool anyone by walking up the aisle with a veil over her face. When the bride walked in, face obscured by a cloud of white, Nina turned to me and said, “Oh, shit.” We stifled our giggles in the solemn silence.
Sometimes, when I was in a foul mood and deliberately stirred the pot with an edict about a topic on which we differed, it backfired on me. Sometimes all Nina said was, “To each his own, Beatriz. To each his own.”
Other times, she was just plain kind. Like the morning when I awakened with a bad case of vertigo. John was long gone to work, and the slightest movement of my head set the room spinning so much that I couldn’t get out of bed. I managed to reach the phone on the nightstand, and not 15 minutes later Nina walked in the door to take me to the doctor. This memory would go a long way with me later – for instance, in the days after she had bladder surgery and she needed someone to spend the night with her at home. I volunteered, thinking she’d be more comfortable with me rather than her son peering at her catheter in the middle of the night.
Even during those rough months when we brought her into our home to live out the early stages of dementia, I found myself recalling the good times we’d had in order to cope. She was justifiably angry at getting sick – and who could blame her? Once she sat at the table and wept, lamenting that she’d been widowed in her early 60s, that being sick precluded her from doing something like going back to school, but mostly that we wouldn’t allow her to go back home and live alone. She often took her frustrations out on us, screaming, once tossing a chair, and another time, throwing a cell phone. She even told the caregiver who came every weekday to be with her that we were keeping her prisoner.
She had hallucinations, and until doctors controlled them with medication, insisted that strangers had broken into the house and eaten her potato chips, or that one of our dogs had climbed into the clothes dryer and couldn’t get out. I often felt way in over my head with all this, and when things got too intense, I would redirect her by suggesting that we go out for margaritas. Or that she help me cook pasta. Or that we watch a movie. Sometimes, we sat together and watched Seinfeld reruns and laughed until we cried.
And then, she made the decision that if she couldn’t go back home, she would move into assisted living. I was hurt. Until I realized that this was simply her way of maintaining her independence as long as possible. As long as she made the decision, she was in the driver’s seat. But John and I both knew that there would be no going back from this point. We were faced with the reality of cleaning and selling her home.
There is something especially poignant about cleaning out Nina’s kitchen. We shared so many meals here, meals she cooked for us. And I’m reminded that sitting at the table with someone is an intimate thing. You eat a dish someone prepared not just to nourish your body but also to please your palate. You joke, laugh and share family stories over the ritual of eating. Here, in this act of communion, is where we lay aside differences, grudges and past offenses in order to love.
Amid these thoughts, my eye goes back toward that scarred colander I placed on the “give-away” pile. It reminds me of those pasta dinners, the vegetarian sauce that Nina used to make for me. Why do I expect the important pronouncements in my life to be loud or jarring? As if aha moments should be literal: “Aha!” More often than not, they’re subtle things that surface gradually over time and wait for me to take notice.
Nina never told me outright that she respected my beliefs; she never said to me the words “I love you.” But just the same, her feelings were folded into her actions, into the compromises she made for our relationship. They were in the fact that she went out of the way to create foods I would enjoy at her table, like the vegetarian pasta sauce. I see this now, just as I see that it was never a question about who was right or wrong, about who would win a particular argument. It was about striking a balance between the comfortable and uncomfortable, the things on which we agreed and those on which we didn’t. It was about friendship. About love. And yes, there were ways I could have been a better friend, a better daughter-in-law. I could have been less quick to judge and quicker to release resentments. But if ours had been a perfect relationship, friction and tension-free, there would have been nothing against which to measure our commonalities, no celebrating where our paths merged.
I take the colander from the “give-away” pile and place it on the “keep” pile.
©Beatriz Terrazas, 2011, all rights reserved