She doesn’t look 94, but for the slowed gait and intermittent labored breathing. Though her eyesight is failing, she’s not dissuaded from reading the Bergen Record from cover to cover, regaling us with facts about real estate values, higher education costs, department store closings, and of course, another sad death. A lighted magnifying glass, purchased by yours truly, is clipped to her tray table, serving as a searchlight to news and information taking place beyond the confines of her Fair Lawn home. She faithfully watches CNN leading to thoughtful conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. While many of her living contemporaries have moved to warmer climates or assisted living communities, when given the choice, she and her late husband opted to stay at home, agreeing to live-in support to keep them safe.
Insisting on keeping her landline, she takes in stride the spam calls from the crooks who have nothing better to do, often joking about sums of money to be wired to unknown Western Union locations. Raised in Paterson and educated at NYU, she had a successful administrative career at Yavneh Academy, enjoying the children and families, managing the ad journal, keeping the office running smoothly alongside her beloved colleagues. Her job never interfered with dinner on the table when her husband got off the train in Radburn. She is a tremendous listener and conversationalist and appreciates the company of those who engage her. A devoted wife, mother, and grandmother, she’s probably best known for her signature lipstick, Cherries in the Snow, manufactured by Revlon and worn proudly to date with or without a face mask. While it took her time to acclimate to life without her husband of more than 60 years, my mother-in-law eventually relented to day-to-day oversight. While for a time, I doubted her sincerity, I am warmed by her regular use of “whatever you say, Debbie.”
Though she grew up with a younger brother and raised two sons, my mother-in-law has always been surrounded by a cadre of female friends. She enjoys the gift of gab and keeps close to the gals she’s known since grade school. I can still see the look on my father-in-law’s face when I’d drive to the house out of frustration from the constant busy signal. “You know Glo,” he’d say. “She loves to talk.”
I knew when I married her son in 1993 there would be a learning curve — both for her and for me. It would take time to make a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law connection that felt natural. Having established a friendship with my parents before my husband and I met, she knew intuitively to step back, recognizing the closeness my mother and I shared. Her expectations were realistic.
Keeping a healthy distance that I may have perceived early on as disinterest, it seemed my mother-in-law quietly observed my interactions with my mother, making mental note of the smooth give and take to our communication. With a knack for finishing each other’s sentences, my mother and I had a secret language unknown to the outside world. Whether singing harmony to Gershwin tunes, writing song parodies for special occasions, or playing guessing games using the initials of famous actors and actresses, my mother and I could pass the time while washing and drying dishes, waiting for an elevator or pretending to focus on a sporting event. Regularly in sync, we had a rhythm all our own.
My mother-in-law took a respectful back seat to all that, waiting patiently for our relationship to evolve as it was meant to. I knew she was happy to have a woman in her life who communicated openly, shared honestly, sought her advice and opinion, included her in decision making, and appreciated her life experience. As the years went on, and her role as mother-in-law grew to grandmother of three loving “ketzels,” I watched her settle in and soften. She became more flexible and willing to go with the flow. When plans were changed, she understood. She often helped me, the perfectionist, recognize that the things I thought were really important weren’t that important after all. “As long as everyone’s healthy,” she would remind me. She had a way of putting things into perspective that I didn’t always acknowledge immediately but valued later. Without really knowing it had happened, my mother-in-law became my friend.
It is mid-April and store shelves are stacked with hundreds of flowery cards with matching pink envelopes for Mother’s Day. The #1 Hallmark holiday is a day of celebration — for me, a mother of three, for the mother I cherished, and for the mother I lovingly care for as though she were my own. While my mother-in-law and I don’t express our feelings as openly as my mother and I did or engage regularly in physical displays of affection, I know how much my mother-in-law loves me.
She trusts the health care decisions I make on her behalf. She appreciates the little things I do to ensure her needs are met. She recognizes my willingness to act before she asks. She admires the way I’ve cared for members of our family. She’s genuinely concerned about my physical and emotional wellbeing. She insists I don’t lose myself or my marriage in the process of caring for her. She’s passionate about her grandsons and soaks up the details of their personal, social and professional experiences. She has a heartfelt desire for me to be happy. I sense it all without her having to say it.
“If you get your fourth Covid vaccine, I promise you lunch out, just the two of us.” She signed on immediately, eager for a car ride, some fresh air and a change of scenery. Her caregiver, ever devoted, passed on the invitation. Refusing her walker, she insisted she’d be fine holding my arm. As we sauntered down Rock Road in Glen Rock, I stopped in front of a shop bearing a framed print: “Call Your Mother.” Pointing to it, we each reflected — she on her own sons, me on mine. I paused, turning to look right at her. “We’ve had a pretty good run, you, and me; haven’t we?” Without skipping a beat, she replied. “You bet we have.” Then as if to make a stronger point, she said it again. “You bet we have.” Holding hands more tightly, as if to never let go, we continued walking.
Happy Mother’s Day, Gloria. I love you.
Deb Breslow is a writer, editor and college essay coach from Wyckoff, NJ. Known for her personal essays on home, family, and medical advocacy, her work is featured in local, regional, and national publications. www.djbreslow.com