Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Best Mother In Law in the Whole Wide World

Last Tuesday, my wife and I went out for dinner, sitting outside at a little Mexican place, taking a few moments together in a mess of a week.  Thirty four years ago, we'd started dating, and though life was hard, we needed to mark it. 

Being a peculiar sort of person, I thought there was a good chance I'd marry Rache before I screwed up the courage to cold-call her that summer evening in 1989.  When I slowly, awkwardly enunciated my name for her, that was what I left unspoken.  The words I said may have been "Hi, this is D-A-V-I-D W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S,"  but what I was really saying was "Hi, for the last six months I have been readying myself to make this call because I intend you to be my wife."  Rache was, at that point, unaware how she'd stuck in my mind, how much she'd made an impression.  I called her out of the blue because I remembered every single conversation we'd ever had, the ease of being with her, the rightness I felt every time we'd had a passing moment.  

Though the night of our dating anniversary was beautiful, Rache and I were both tired, an anxious pall weighing on us.  Her mom Lottie was hospitalized, and in the ICU.  She had been deep into a battle with yet another cancer when she had a catastrophic adverse reaction to a new chemo treatment.  Despite a ferocious and terrible effort, Lottie passed away just a few days later, reluctantly letting go of the life that had been such a joy.

I was blessed to know Lottie for the thirty four years Rache and I have been a thing, pretty much the entirety of my adult life.  There's an assumption, in our individualistic age, that when you choose a life partner it's a binary experience.  It's the two of you, locked together in the polarity of Wuv, Twue Wuv, and the rest of the universe may as well not exist.  As a romantic, I get that, but the reality goes deeper.  When you choose to marry, to do the as-long-as-you-both-shall-live thing, you're not just making a commitment to a lover.  You're grafting yourself into their whole web of relationships.  The people who are part of their lives will be a part of your life for as long as you both shall live, for better...or for worse.  That's kinda Shakespeare's point in Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how that ended.

That first summer when Rache and I began dating, I was attentive to that truth.

A good wife may be hard to find, but a good mother-in-law?  That you should have such a blessing.  Lottie was the Platonic form of the Jewish mother, for whom family was absolutely everything.  She loved and squabbled with and then loved her daughters more deeply still.  But to find a Jewish mother in law who loves her goyische son in law, and who supports him when he's called not just to be a committed churchgoing Christian, but a pastor?  Who knows from that?  Who's heard of such a thing?

Lottie had a boundless interest in things, a desire to experience the world and all that life offered.  She was an educator not simply because she loved to teach, but because she valued learning, her encounter with and delight in the new.  Classes and books, shows and music and travel to every corner of the globe, she wanted to embrace all of it.

But though the world was filled with newness, the experiences that mattered most were those of family.  Lottie wanted everyone there all of the time, to share every moment of life with those she loved, particularly those moments right after your plane landed.  She wanted everyone she loved to share their every joy and sorrow with her, to see their every play or performance or fencing match, to read every book, to play every game, to travel in a bustling huddle across seas and in far off lands, to experience it all together.

For three decades, I've been along for that ride, and shared that life with her. 

Family was everything, and Lottie and I were family.   I could talk with her about anything, share myself freely with her, both in joy and in times of hardship.  Her strength was mine when I was broken, and vice versa. 

When you take on someone as family, you bring with you your expectations of how that works, and sometimes there are differences.  In my very gentile family, for instance, the expectation was that adults all addressed their in laws by name.  For Lottie, though, there was an early hope that I might call her Mom.  I just couldn't quite say the word, couldn't quite get it out of my mouth.  It was not for a lack of love, just that that name was already taken.  Just like in Ashkenazi tradition you do not name a child after a living relative, I had someone with that name, and I couldn't get that to work in my brain.  Being an anxious twenty-something who was pathologically indirect and conflict averse, there was a period of time there where I struggled to call Lottie anything at all.  That wasn't at all awkward. Oy.

But eventually, she was Lottie, because I think both she and I understood her name meant more to me.   I could talk with Lottie about anything, share myself freely with her.  I knew that she loved me unconditionally, and she knew that I loved her just as deeply and without boundaries.  Lottie loved me as a mother loves a son, and I loved Lottie as completely as a son loves their mother.

I was always there for her, in joy and hardship, on adventures and Shabbas evenings, on bright days and holding her hand through that long hard last night she spent in this world.  

The word that I said may have been "Lottie," but what I was really saying was "Mom."

Her memory will be a blessing.