Some women learn how to be a good mother from their own parents. I was lucky; I have a phenomenal mother, and she taught me well. But some of the most important lessons I learned – about mothering, loving, and making the best use of the time you're given with your family -- came from another source entirely: my mother-in-law.
When my Scottish husband and I were first engaged, we flew to Scotland so I could meet his family. I'm a native Texan, and (I admit) a bit of a potty-mouth. On the plane, Dave gave me a rundown of all the words I wasn't to use in front of his mother. “Even though nice girls say those words in America,” he said, looking as if he were trying to convince himself I truly was a nice girl and worthy of meeting Mum, “nice girls in Scotland don't.”
I bit my tongue. I loved this man, and I would not scream obscenities at his mother when we met, no matter how tempting he had just made it seem.
When I met Liz, a five-foot-two, ash-blond sixty-year old, and she asked how I felt after my trip, I replied with one of the cute, new words I had often heard my husband use.
“I'm happy to be here, but I'm totally knackered.”
My husband turned bright red. My mother-in-law raised one eyebrow. Dave's brother wasted no time telling me that the cute expression did mean exhausted. But exhausted as in “weary from too much premarital bliss.”
Ah, first impressions.
Liz was the epitome of Scottish womanhood, and I was nowhere near her league. She could do it all – cook brandy snaps from memory, whip up a four-course meal every night, work as the headmistress of the local primary school, raise three ambitious and intelligent sons, and keep an immaculately clean household.
On the other hand, I was a child of divorced parents, who swore, drank margaritas, and could cook any recipe as long as it started with a can of cream-of-mushroom soup.
She scared me to death. How could a gal like me endear herself to a Scottish force of nature?
At long last, a solution presented itself. All I had to do was give birth. And even though she'd knitted a closet full of tiny, rosebud pink wool sweaters during my pregnancy, she loved my red-faced, colicky boy. She stayed with us and filled my freezer the following month. My first day home from the hospital, I wandered blearily downstairs to find a casserole, a giant pot of ratatouille, and a sponge cake already made.
That first week, I nursed the baby while she made stock for her homemade soups. “First stock is best,” she told me, meticulously picking the last pieces of meat and placing them in a bowl. “But during the war, we made first, second, and sometimes third stock.” She broke the bones down, and added onion, carrots, celery, salt and pepper. I had never seen stock made before: I thought it came in cans or boxes. As I watched, she turned the scraps I had always thrown away into the most delicious soups, sharing stories from her life as she worked.
I'm pretty certain I made her crazy, with my un-ironed sheets and stacks of dirty dishes. She never criticized me, though, making the best of our differences. She took the bits and pieces of her own experience with children and marriage and broke them down for me like she had the chicken, telling dozens of stories. Teaching me unobtrusively, showing how she had grown into the woman she was: strong, competent, classy. She cooked and told stories every day for a month, leaving enough food in the freezer that I didn't have to turn on the stove for two months after she left.
When I was pregnant with my second, we found out Liz had cancer. Not breast cancer, or skin cancer, or one of those kinds of cancers people recover from and live for decades. She had stage 4 ovarian cancer. After about ten minutes on the Internet, I discovered stage 4 meant “hopeless.”
She died when my second son was eight months old. I remember the day I reached into my freezer, three months after she died, finding a shepherd's pie she had made and frozen, knowing that was the last dish anyone would ever eat that she had cooked.
It was delicious, of course, but we all cried through dinner.
Like Liz, I am a mother of boys. Someday I will be the mother-in-law, an interloper in the households of my sons' brides. I hope I will be like her, teaching those women how to make good stock from the remains of the meal, how to hold a colicky baby, and biting my tongue when they do it all wrong.
I make my own stock now, and I always think of Liz. I wish I could have her back, to celebrate with her as my sons learn to walk, to read, to ride their bikes. To thank her again for all those meals, and the stories. To show her I had learned the most important lesson she had to teach: that we may be with the ones we love for a very short while, but we can turn every scrap of time we have into memories that will last for generations.