human interest

My Mother-In-Law

I met June/Mrs. D/Grandma almost 30 years ago.  I met her the same weekend I met my husband Randy – at their camp. It was that camp that formed so much of my relationship with her – it took us beyond the typical daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship since we spent so much time there together every summer.  It was so far beyond the relative you saw at holidays.  Becoming the only grandma to my kids when they were very young also contributed to my appreciation of our relationship.

She always told the story of her first sighting of me – she saw me walking across the lawn with her son close on my heels.  She said, “Poor guy, he doesn’t stand a chance.”  I’m not sure if that was a compliment!

To explain my relationship with her, I need to tell the story of how our time together every summer evolved.  The first summer when she realized I was going to be a regular presence, she very clearly told me that I was welcome out there, I needed to stay out of the kitchen (including cooking and clean-up); however, I was expected to help.  I was assigned the jobs of making sure the sleeping cabin was cleaned and dusted and the mats around the yard were swept daily so there wasn’t a build up of debris.  She, and her husband, were also happy when I helped my boyfriend at the time with whatever project he was working on, assigned or not.  I liked her right away because she was so clear.  I always felt welcome but I also always worked hard – not on the jobs my boyfriend gave me – on the ones she did.  Needless to say, when the day came that they decided to plant grass and remove the mats from the yard, I was relieved.

I knew then she hated it when anyone would do anything for her.  She once told me, when you and Randy get married, don’t invite me to dinner.  If you do, serve me Special K because I don’t want anyone going out of their way for me.

I never felt judged by her.  I was only 22 years old when I met her and both my boyfriend and I were both still very much into all-night parties.  There were many nights with 12 plus people in the sleeping cabin and the music blasting until 5 a.m.  Just as many mornings (or afternoons) where I’d get up not feeling so well.  She always had coffee and breakfast ready and never commented on what must have been us keeping her and her husband up all night.  She always said she preferred her kids were home getting up to mischief rather than out who knows where.  She always welcomed anyone who wanted to be there, especially if they gave a hand in the many jobs it takes to maintain a camp.  As much as she said she didn’t like people around, we all know she thrived on it.  There was nothing she liked better than to have a lot of people around to chat with, just sit with, do puzzles with, watch TV with, just be around.  And, you knew if you were around, you needed to eat.  She fed everyone constantly and there was no saying “no thanks.”  You also usually left with a portion of the leftovers!

I always wished I had met her a few years earlier.  She explained why she no longer personally invited people out to camp many times.  In their generosity, people started taking advantage.  So many people would show up out there all the time empty handed expecting to be entertained, fed and watered (only it was the more expensive brand of water!).  They got to the point of not inviting people before I met my husband but I also know, even after that, she’d still open up the camp when it made sense.  Over the years, it became about family.  Every time she was there, the more of her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids that were there, the happier she was.

Everyone who ever met her became part of her family.  Not only friends of hers but friends of her kids and partners/friends of her kids, then same with her grandkids, and so on and so on.  No one ever had an unkind word to say about her.  She was the true centre of so many worlds.  We’ve all lost that centre.  No wonder that at the same time we’re experiencing the loss of her, we’re feeling we’ve lost our centre.  The core – the glue that keeps it all together.

The rules she established with me at camp didn’t change until her husband passed away.  I think people used to shake their heads over the fact that I’d sit and eat dinner then leave the camp and the clean up to her.  But, she and I had an understanding – that was her and I respected it.  The first few years her husband was gone, coming to camp was just too painful for her.  That meant I needed to step up and take care of some of things in the camp.  It created a bit of awkwardness for us.  We both lost our roles or felt like we were.  As her health became worse, it only increased that awkwardness and we did a bit of tip-toeing around each other to make it work.  Even last summer, I’d cook breakfast for my husband and my kids and ask her if she’d like an egg.  She was clear she’d cook it herself if she wanted one.  One part of me felt like a pretty awful person – the other, however, felt good knowing I was respecting her and what she wanted/needed her role to be.  Over the last few years, we figured out how to balance it all.  I honestly believe she appreciated me.  No matter how she was doing physically, I treated her with the respect of her matriarchal position and did everything I could to make it easier for her to do what she needed to do.  Another example is the time I kidnapped her and brought her to the casino. I don’t think her children have forgiven me.  She’d been housebound for months as a result of cancer treatments.  I needed to go for a ride with my son to pick up something we’d ordered.  She wanted to come along for the ride.  She hadn’t been at the casino in months and months so we schemed on the drive to stop in for half hour.  We left my son sitting in the lobby and she had a few minutes of fun in the casino.  She was so happy and so relieved to be out.  She said she felt normal again for a little while.  After we all got shit from her kids, she phoned me later that night to thank me.  She was so tired of only being the patient.  Being the daughter-in-law, I always had the privilege of not to be the primary one to worry about what she should and shouldn’t be doing – I had the ability to always just see her as her and honouring the relationship that her and I had established.

Speaking of the casino, I’m not sure if I should be thankful to her or not (my bank account agrees) to introducing me to the world of gambling and casinos.  One of her favourite conversations was about which machines were paying and who was winning what.  She loved Vegas, she loved the social experience of being in the casino, and it was something she wanted to share.  Her and her husband brought me (with my then boyfriend) to the border casino for the very first time.  I was hooked!  It wasn’t long after I met my boyfriend that we then planned a Vegas vacation with her and her husband.  It was the first of many.  She taught me all the tricks as far as how to get the best deals – take advantage of your points, take advantage of where you can eat when, get a free flight by giving up your seat.  I spent so many hours with the two of them, both in Vegas and in the border casino.  Hours of all sharing a one dollar machine when they still paid out coins and we had little red trays to collect $100.  Keno led to hours of conversation as we’d sit and play close together.  She showed me every place she loved in Vegas, including Laughlin, then did the same for my sister and her boyfriend at the time.  Circus Circus was the place to be – 100’s of stuffed animals from the midway, getting to know the staff, the buffet (go at 11:30 so you pay for breakfast but get lunch!). Bus trips to downtown, free shows, walks on the strip are all things she showed me that, to this day, I still try to pass on to others who are venturing there for the first time.  All of us who gamble know that the casino can be a perfect escape – while you can get lost in your thoughts, you can also get caught up in the machines and the environment.  I will never forget when I miscarried my first pregnancy – the day I found out, at 10:00 at night, she and her husband came and picked my husband and I up and off we went to the border casino.  It was our way of being together, them supporting me, without needing to sit and stare at each other.  It was what I needed and I’ll value that always.  My very last conversation with her a few days ago was about my visit to the border casino, how many people were there and whether or not the machines were paying.

They say if you want to know who a man is, watch how he is with his mother.  One of the reasons I knew my husband was the one I wanted to marry was watching him with his mom and his family.  I came from a family from a newer generation.  Being with a family that had parents who had been together all their adult lives and who were committed to being that way no matter what hardships and changes came their way was something truly admirable to me.  Experiences and events with my family had always been “quiet.”  We were smaller but there were times and places for heated discussions.  When I met that family, there were times I went and hid.  Then and now, they loudly argue with each other on a regular basis – there’s nothing that’s ever left unsaid – audiences be damned.  But, you always felt the love and the connection.  My father-in-law yelling at my husband about how useless he was while winking at me was my sign that it wasn’t out of true anger that these animated and loud conversations happened.  They know to be heard you’ve got to speak the loudest and over top of anyone else who happens to be speaking!  When my first son was born, he spent his first few months in the quiet of our three person family.  He would get so agitated when we first started going to family events, we’d need to leave early.  That didn’t last long – I think he thought, if you can’t beat them, join them and is now more than comfortable in being the loudest voice in the room when he wants to be heard.  This also shifted our small household and my niece now calls us the “yelling family” because we’re so much louder and argumentative in our house than what she experiences in her own.  My youngest son is still learning in the bigger groups of that family that he needs to be louder to be heard.

Back to my husband and his Mom.  He has always struggled with finding his place in the family, coming along so much later than the other three.  His sister had the role of the only girl and the oldest.  The oldest brother had the role of first boy.  His other brother had the role of baby of the family.  Ten years later, my husband came along.  It has never been a question of whether he is loved but I’ve watched him struggle with his role.  At 50, he’s still the unexpected baby.  His love for his mom has been something that I’ve admired, envied, resented, appreciated over the years.  There has nothing he hasn’t been willing to do for her.  His mom, not wanting anyone ever to do anything for her, never expected him to do anything.  To find his purpose, he made the camp his mission, sometimes making changes that his Mom cringed at.  As long as I’ve known him, his way of showing his parents how much he loves them is to make sure their camp legacy lives on.  He’s passed that on to our sons and, for that, I love him more.

I met his niece and nephew when they were 11 and 13.  I kind of knew then that she was the perfect grandmother.  After our kids came along, I started telling people that if you looked up the definition of grandmother, it would be her photo you’d see. She always said she liked them most until they were about two.  Her actions never supported her statement.  She loved each and every one of her grandchildren/great grandchildren for the individuals who they are.  She made a point of getting to know them and recognizing that no two were alike.  She appreciated each of their strengths and loved them with her whole heart.  She went to every event she could, whether it be a mother’s day celebration at a grandkid’s school, coming out to every sporting event she could, attending every music festival and just being there.  Our kids have always known that their Grandma would be there, even if their parents were too angry or upset because of something they’d done.  My mother didn’t parent in the same way but I took that and made it part of how I parent.  There’s not one of her kids/grandkids/great-grandkids that would ever think they weren’t important to her because she made the investment in getting to know them and in committing her time to show how important they are.

She talked to me on a few occasions about how she thought she was a woman before her time.  She would have loved to have gone to university and been a career woman.  She didn’t resent any part of her life but I think her personal dreams allowed her to see beyond the tradition she’d grown up in and accept the ways society was changing and then make it easy to accept everyone around her as a result.  Another lesson she taught me that I’ve tried hard to incorporate into my life.  One example was when my husband and I got engaged.  I was clear with him that I could not convert to Catholicism but wanted to be married in a Christian church.  I thought there’d be opposition.  I wasn’t there for the conversation between him and his Mom but he said later that she’d said, “I’m just happy you’re getting married in a church.”  It was the same when it came to the baptisms for both of our boys.  As a career woman, she never got the credit she deserved.  From what I know, she worked in a paid job for most of her life.  This is a woman who raised four children, for most of her married life had a relative she was either directly caring for because they were in her home or indirectly caring for because she visited them every day, but also worked full-time plus did bookkeeping for either her husband or son.  And she was happy!  I can only speak from what I saw but she thrived on living on 4 hours sleep and coffee and doing what she needed to do.

I’ve talked about a few of the lessons she taught me about life.  There is so much she taught me about knowing myself, being a wife, being a parent and being part of a family.  For me, the biggest lesson was around raising boys.  I grew up in a family that was primarily female dominated.  Then I gave birth to two boys.  I so admired the way she had raised hers – not only the one I was married to but the two too.  While her older sons might have had their Dad more directly to teach them about hunting and fishing and the outdoors, my husband told me stories about his mom in her waders taking him out to the creeks to go fishing for smelts.  My husband, in our adult years, always wanted to take his Dad fishing – his mom always came along – I’m questioning it now about who liked it better.  She never passed up the opportunity, even though she never caught a thing, to be with her family, walking the trails or being on the pontoon boat.  I don’t know if she actually liked fishing – I know she just loved being with those in her family that did.  That’s why I still fish with mine.

She also taught me that boys are boys.  Not that they will be – they are.  Getting all worked up about things we as females take for granted are not things that they give any importance.  That’s not bad – that’s just the reality.  Understanding that it’s not unloving or disrespectful for them to be them has given me a freedom to allow my sons to be who they are and to know that they love and respect me, regardless of the moments I don’t get their thinking or behaviour.

She always told me she wasn’t good with newborns or babies up to 12 months.  She was clear she wouldn’t babysit my first born until he was close to a year old.  Then my younger son was born and my Mom got sick.  He was just 5 months old and my Mom was hospitalized.  I needed to be there and she wouldn’t have had it any different.  She took care of my baby as an infant from the time he was 5 months until my Mom died when he was 9 months on a regular basis.  She always told me her and my younger son had a special bond as a result – a bond I loved even given the horrible circumstance.

She also frustrated the heck out of me when it came to raising kids.  When I went back to work after my oldest was born and she had him two days per week, I gave her the schedule of what needed to happen when.  She didn’t follow the schedule even for one day.  It took me a while but I finally realized and appreciate to this day that it only expanded his life and his experiences – it didn’t take a single thing away.  He still followed the routines in our house but knew a new routine at Grandma’s.  She was the best caregiver – much better than me – when they got older and if they were home sick, they’d say, “can I go to Grandma’s?”  I can’t remember now but maybe I was originally hurt or offended but I quickly moved to, thank goodness, someone who loves my kids as much as I do, can do what doesn’t come naturally to me.  A new appreciation was born.  I learned she’d never do things my way but her way just as good.  We were a good balance.  The proof is the people my kids are now.

I think she thought my husband and I were doing a good job in raising our kids so, for the most part, she didn’t comment.  There were a few times where she did have a voice and gave a subtle slap on the hand for not emotionally meeting their needs,  She kind of gave me crap a few weeks ago when I sent my oldest to school on Monday after he’d had his wisdom teeth out on Friday.  She has also made sure that we were looking at sibling fights between the two without prejudice.  Sometimes it could be so easy to blame one or the other.  She taught me it was a losing battle to ever show one you might be taking preference.

I grew up in a family that women’s rights were a huge lesson – a woman’s right to be equal was what we as women were all workings toward.  I still am fighting for that cause and will never say a man can do something that a woman can’t.  However, in raising two boys under her influence, I realized that males are not the enemy.  They are protective beings who will give everything of themselves to protect the females they love and their families.  May be politically incorrect but I believe it as the truth.  So, to take on the role of preparing nice meals for your family or resisting anything else that may historically may be gender based is not sticking it to feminism.  It gives me pleasure and purpose to cook for my “boys” after they’ve done a day of physical labour.  It gives me satisfaction, after the years of helping my husband with the physical stuff at camp, to be the one now who doesn’t help with that but the one who prepares their meal and cleans up afterwards.  It’s not about I can’t do it or have been told to do it – I want to do it and it gives me pleasure and satisfaction to do so.  If I’d never met my mother-in-law, I don’t know if I’d ever say or admit that.  She taught me that a strong woman can still be the one who cooks and cleans for her family – as long as the rest of the family works just as hard to contribute.  For me, in today’s society, I can accept that as long as it never becomes the expectation that because I’m a female, that’s my role in our family and that’s okay with me.  More than okay.

You and I have never expressed the true emotion between us but I know you knew.  I love you, I will miss you, and I’m so sad that you won’t be part of wherever life takes us all going forward.  Your lessons will live on in all of us.  I know you never wanted credit for anything but take it, know that we all know the influence you’ve had on all of our lives.

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