I met her lake-blond haired, sun-tanned son first. He used words like “groovy” and “out of sight” in the early 80s. Things were “killer” to him. He liked one of my favorite places, Sunshine Subs, a co-op in Kalamazoo, and played guitar like a pro. He was quick to anger, but he had a faster draw on his laugh. I never met someone who spent hilarity so freely. I thought it was a good idea to accept his invitation to their lake house for the 4th of July, family sight unseen. I sewed a new sun-shirt and bought a bottle of Blue Nun to give as a hostess gift. On the four-hour drive, I almost exploded with nervousness. Poor her, acting graciously over a crappy bottle of grocery store wine with a picture of piety on the label.
A year later, she worried about her son’s choice when I spent an afternoon in their home, calling neighbors to co-sign my student trust fund loan because my dad had moved out of state and my parent’s divorce was ugly. When my surfer dude was corporate-transferred to California after graduation, like heralding a sun disciple home, I called her to say that I really loved him and hoped that made it okay for us to live together.
I had improved my taste a bit by the time we got engaged, but taste without money is a sow’s ear. Good friends of hers planned a couple’s shower with boxed dinners from the country club. Realizing I was out of my element, I asked for the dress code. Those days, you couldn’t just Google “club casual.” I missed it by a few marks, but I learned.
In newly-wedded days, our arrival at the lake meant a bud vase on a bedside table, a freshly made bed, turned down. Cocktails were at the sunburnt hour of five o’clock. While the guys fished before dinner, we would do the Reader’s Digest vocabulary test together. I learned that you can bake spaghetti sauce for hours and talk people into staying from the aroma wafting from the kitchen on a late summer breeze. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her set the dinner hour. It was always up to somebody else, even though she was most often the cook. We played Gin into the wee hours. Once, she convinced us to go skinny dipping in the dark and the way I remember it, she jumped off the dock first.
When her first granddaughter arrived, I had poured over a variety of parenting books including Dr. Spock, because I lacked any real experience with babies and have always believed in the written word. We were gutting our way through a dinner on the sun porch while letting Child #1 cry her brains out (from the “don’t give in to their temper, parents” advice). She listened more and more fretfully, like waves churning up in the wind, until she put down her utensils and said, “In my day, we didn’t let them cry like that.” I thought I would sob with relief that I could give in and go.
Until her grandchildren were grown, she would go up and say goodnight to each, initially because that first, ruler-of-the-world grandchild would queenly say, “Send grandma up.” The lake house holds sets of Mickey Mouse Golden Books and Beatrix Potter board books that were read one thousand times. We still played Gin until the wee hours. I would get to sleep in while grandchildren crawled into her bed as the sun came up over the lake. She let pancake batter get beaten by small, eager hands to the point it would not rise, frying “calm pancakes” every morning.
Her taste in kids’ clothing was perfect: motifs of sail boats and bunny rabbits, tartan plaids, even a kilt and matching sporran-purse brought back from Scotland. She and her husband were like Santa Claus on adrenaline, buying red fire trucks, rescue vehicles with flashing lights, American Girls dolls and accessories like they were an investment. One birthday, they brought my three-year-old son a Power Wheels Jeep. We have a video of her laughing while I’m yelling, “Don’t run over the bushes.”
I passed some sort of “keeper” test when I was given the real family recipe for her world-famous cheeseball. She had fobbed off some fake version a few years before, claiming she couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t work.
She knows I hate bugs, but I will still save their lives. I know she loves to have her hair brushed and her feet rubbed. She has the most beautiful skin and tans without wrinkling, even though I have never had a good tan to save my life. We both love setting a nice table. A winter or so ago, when her house lost power, she came to our heated one and we immediately went to Home Goods, a trip from which I have twelve linen napkins.
I think she should be listening to Frank in heaven; she could play the same damned CD all summer in her convertible, driving up and down M-22. I was the first person to get her to put her top down in the Sebring, but I could never teach her how to use the Bluetooth in her Lincoln. Up until a few weeks ago, I was still trying to get her to gently touch her iPad screen, instead of poking at it. I don’t think I ever saw her use a camera properly, even though she always blamed it on the technology. She threw away more directions than I have ever read, usually along with the gift wrapping.
She ruthlessly grubbed around her garden with dirty fingers, never gloves, and her flowers thrived and thrived, especially coral geraniums. This is possibly why my garden always looked stingy next to hers, as I stubbornly hold on to hand coverings and garden tools.
Her signature clothing color was a cross between sky and aqua blue, the same color as the frigid lake as I drove away. We said goodbye. We are each the best thing ever, best mother-in-law and best daughter-in-law, practically “Perfect,” which is the way she addressed my cards.
She’s seen angels, friends, family, husband, and old boyfriend, lined up in heaven. They’ve all told her it’s a “good time up there,” and so she wants to go, because she’s one of the most social people I’ve ever met and the first to enjoy a party. I hope it’s a doozie. I’ll be up, by and by, for a hand of Gin and a glass of wine, which she will hold like it’s about to spill, but it never does.