Dear Dorothy – A Letter to my Mother-in-Law

Tomorrow I will board a plane and travel to Florida for my mother-in-law’s funeral. Since we found out last week, I have been thinking about death – how final it is, how permanent it seems, and how unreal it is until you are actually back in a place where the person lived.

I read these words in an article on grief:

“Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature. It’s the only prediction we can make at birth that we can bank on. Everyone will die, and it’s very likely somebody we love will die before we do.”*

They are true words in an otherwise mediocre article.

Memories have resurfaced – some that make me laugh out loud. My mother-in-law was a force of nature. It’s impossible to compress a life into a blog post, and I won’t try, but I want to share some memories of this force who was Dorothy. Thank you for reading.

*****

Dear Dorothy,

On a hot July Saturday in 1983, I received my first phone call from you. I had begun dating your son in February, but he headed off to the Middle East on a study trip in May. It would be a long summer for me; an exciting one for him.

So on that July day, your phone call was welcome. You introduced yourself to me as “Clifford’s mom” and I remember voicing surprise at your southern accent.

“Well, what did you expect” you retorted! “That I would talk like a Yankee.” And that was my introduction to your quick wit and comebacks, something you passed on in no small way to your sons.

In late summer, after Cliff returned from the Middle East, we took a trip to Florida to meet the family. We arrived on a gorgeous day and went straight to dinner at a restaurant.

I was nervous until you looked at me and said:

“The service has been terrible at this restaurant the last 12 times we’ve come.”

“Then why do you keep coming back?” I said. It was the perfect opener to help me relax.

Later that week, as I came into the kitchen ready to head out for a trip to Disney World, your eyes took in my outfit from head to toe, and you said “Well Cliff’s safe with you. No truck driver is ever going to pick you up in those pants!” Cliff looked at me and confirmed your opinion. No one had ever told me how bad I looked in them. Thank God I found out sooner rather than later.

Through the years, you amazed me with your artistic and creative ability. Whether it was China painting or sewing, you knew how to do it. My children wore sweatsuits with embossed designs, drank tea out of tiny china cups that you had exquisitely painted, even admired china cremation urns that you were making for a funeral home.

There are two memories that still come to mind after all these years. The first was a time when your youngest son, Greg, and your husband, Richard were sitting in the family room discussing the weight of football players. I could hear them from the kitchen.

“Did you see the weight on that guy? Wow! 240 pounds! How about that other player? He’s 300 pounds!” And on went the discussion by two men who didn’t have one extra pound on their bodies.

Suddenly I heard you come up behind me. You were laughing so hard you could barely speak. You finally stopped long enough to whisper in my ear “Did you hear them talking about weight? Thank God they don’t know what I weigh!”  I joined you in laughing. Both of us had a struggle with weight that wasn’t easily managed, and having two thin men discuss body weight just added insult to what was already difficult. But laughter was something you did well, even when it was at your own expense.

The second memory makes me smile hard. Again, I was in the kitchen and Cliff and the kids were resting somewhere in the house. It was early afternoon, and you had gone out to do some errands. I heard the living room door open, and then heard a “Psst.” You repeated it. I went to the opening between the kitchen and living room area, and there you were with two beautiful boxes.  You slowly opened them. In each box was the most delectable fruit tart that I have ever seen. The perfectly fluted crust was piled high with cream, then fruit, then more cream. They were magnificent.

As I surveyed them with shining eyes, I realized that there were only two of them.

“Shall I call Cliff?” I asked, thinking that you had bought one for him.

“NO!” you retorted! “This is for you and me! I didn’t even buy one for my son!”

We sat at the kitchen table, like two naughty little girls, savoring a stolen treat. We laughed and whispered, eating every single mouthful and then wiping the cream off of our upper lips. It was heaven.

Something about that moment has stayed with me all these years. Any mother and daughter-in-law combination has its challenges, and ours was no exception. There were times when I fought hard and you fought back. But the shared treat of that moment was a communion of understanding — understanding that sometimes moms need to forget the needs of the rest of the family and eat rich and creamy fruit pastries.  Perhaps also, understanding that sometimes the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship needs those occasional moments away from the rest of the family to forge a bond.

Your life was not all easy, and there were times when I saw glimpses of that.  By the time you were in your early twenties, you had four active boys and were raising them all over the country followed by the world. You knew what it was to pack up and move multiple times, say a million goodbyes, and leave places you would never see again. Yet you made sure that those kids were able to see every sight possible during those four years in Europe. I imagine these last few years with increasing health problems, a husband who is struggling with his own health, and a scattered family were some of the hardest. But every day, you got up, and sometimes that’s all any of us can do.

And now you’re gone. It’s not real to me yet – it won’t be until I see Richard alone at the funeral. Your quick answers won’t be a part of this weekend’s gathering. You won’t be chiming in with opinions and laughter. But you will be there, because we will be celebrating you and your life. We will be celebrating the creativity, laughter, quick quips, tenacity, and personality that were uniquely yours.

I hope I will get to eat a creamy, fruit tart and as I do, lift my eyes to Heaven and thank you.  I love you and I look forward to the day when I see you again in another time and another place. Perhaps you are already saving a fruit tart for me.

*Time Magazine, 4.24.17

11 thoughts on “Dear Dorothy – A Letter to my Mother-in-Law

  1. Marilyn, we were sisters in another life and have found each other in this one. Of course I did not share your fruit tart but I am blessed that I have shared it now. I sit here with sad tears for your family who will no longer have the living body of Dorothy but know you will have an everlasting gift of the memories you shared. In every day of our lives until we leave this one it is all we share. Love and laughter in the subtlest of moments and the quiet realization of how much meaning they actually have. Thank you for your memories that bring mine to the surface and remind me of how much we are all alike and connected. I Love you and hope you and your family continue to find peace and solace in the subtleties. Rest in peace or cause the greatest joy in havoc, Dorothy!!

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  2. Beautiful tribute . . . lovely word painting of who Dorothy was to you, well worthy of the delicate china painting you admired. John’s and my love and caring to Cliff, you and your family and deep sympathy to Richard.

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