Mothers-in-Law who have impacted my life

Comedians over the years make fun of mothers-in-law but it is always the men complaining about their mother-in-law.  Many women are passive aggressive and are not confrontational, but when they get home with the husbands the complaining starts.  I guess it is a sort of rivalry like two women fighting over one man.  And with the mothers having problems with daughters-in-law, maybe it has something to do with mothers thinking this “other woman” was taking their little boy away from his mama.

Dad's mother, my Italian grandmother (Nona) started off on the wrong foot when she told my Mom shortly after they married, “You know, you can always have another wife, but you can only have one mother.” Mom told me about this when I was very young. It left a lasting impression on her and me too I guess because I always remembered it and realized that my wonderful Mom, who didn’t have a mean bone in her body, did what she had to do to maybe get some "revenge."

When Nono died, Nona had an apartment built in the back of the basement for her to live in and we moved in upstairs in the house my Nono had built when he came over from Italy in the mid 1920s in the Crocker Amazon District of SF.  Living in two separate residences worked for us, Nona downstairs, and my family upstairs. I used to learn some Italian from her when I visited and helped her whenever I could. Our other Yugoslavian grandmother (Baba) lived about six blocks away in the Excelsior District of SF, all within walking distance.

Italians live to grow a garden of edibles and SF had the climate for it.  We had all the herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary, basil, bay leaf, and thyme as well as veggies like carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, dandelion, radicchio, and swiss chard. There were two cherry trees and a fig tree as well as a flower garden with morning glory, poppies, geranium, azalea, and hydrangea. 

With a garden like that, you had to water it every day. Unfortunately, Nona decided to water the garden in the evening when Mom and I tried to wash dinner dishes upstairs in our kitchen.  This was a tug of war and Mom seemed to be winning.  When we washed dishes, Nona had a drip coming out of the garden hose, hardly enough to fill a shot glass.  We had all the water we needed to wash the dishes. I feel ashamed of myself when I think about this, but Mom and I were a team and I always stuck up for my mother, no matter what.  I used to hide behind a window in one of the bedrooms facing the backyard to watch Nona’s reaction and Mom watched her from the window above the sink but thought she was apparently invisible to Nona in the backyard down below. 

Italians use their hands a lot and Nona was animated.  As a kid, I thought it was funny. She did some arm movements that I didn’t know the meaning of then, but I sure do know now, and it wasn't pretty.  They were like swearing with your arms and hands.  She was visibly angry when she looked up at the kitchen window.  That was about as mean as my mom got and I am sure it satisfied her. This became known in my mind as my mother’s "revenge" for that snarky remark her mother-in-law made to her back in the day.

My first mother-in-law, Ruth, was the wife of the man who ended up being my boss in the first municipal government job I had.  I was hired to work as the first Planning Department secretary for a Bay Area city. After a few months, the Planning Director took a job in southern California and the man that was later to be my father-in-law, Jack, took over that department as well as his own which was the Building Department.  I knew his wife from her visits to City Hall.  Jack invited his son to City Hall to meet me, being the little matchmaker he was.  Their son was eleven years older and twice divorced, and after visiting City Hall to meet me, he made it a regular thing just before closing time.  Although Jack would warn him all the time to not mess up my life, Jack wanted me to be part of his family. Jack knew my fiancé was in the Marines, but he orchestrated this move anyway and it worked, obviously, because we met the end of October and that following June we married.

Prior to us getting married, Ruth said to me, “You don’t plan to have kids do you?”  My ex already had two children from two different women. But of course I did, why else would I want to get married at 19? All I ever wanted was to have kids and be a stay-at-home mom to take care of them, like my mother did.  I just told her that I did want children and that was the end of that discussion and she never mentioned it again.  My firstborn came into this world that following April.

Ruth was a good woman but we did have a few problems over the years, nothing major. Sometimes my feelings got hurt. I was not too happy about her renewed relationship with ex-wife #2.  Early on in our marriage, at least for the first five years or so, I thought she should have been grateful that I made a responsible man out of her son.  I guess I did because we were married for almost 16.5 years before I wanted a divorce. I kept him out of jail, straightened up his mountain of debts, and made a home for him and our kids while I worked full time to help support us.  Prior to our getting married, Ruth always got him out of trouble because he was her only son out of the four children and perhaps her favorite.  Ruth was an expert seamstress.  Since Jack was a Bay Area favorite square dance caller, she made all her square dance dresses and his shirts. I was very impressed with her talent because some of those dresses were pretty elaborate. When not sewing, she had a penchant for murder mystery magazines.  I used to think that sometimes all of that ugliness in print made her somewhat negative about life.  All in all, she was a good mother-in-law and never interfered in our marriage.

My second husband, Bill, was adopted.  His adoptive mom, Jeannette, was a dear little woman.  She and her husband adopted Bill as an infant when she was 39 so she was an older mom.  She was thrilled her son was happy when we met and she fit in to our family right away.  She was a wonderful mother-in-law too. The only complaint I had about her was taking her shopping.  I have always felt that if you went shopping and came home empty handed, you were a failure.  I guess I still feel that way.  She would drag me around for three or four hours and never bought a thing, even though she could use some new clothes. She was a UC Berkeley grad, a world traveler, and an expert bridge player.  Jeannette had a sweet disposition. The highlight of her week was when we took her to my Dad and Mom’s house in Fremont every Sunday for family dinner.  She passed away when she was 97 years old in 2005. We still miss her.

Prior to Jeannette's passing, Bill’s biological family found us in 2001. They all live in Montana. Bill’s bio Mom, Margaret, came to California when she was 18 years old and pregnant to live with her aunt in Oakland where she had Bill, then moved back to Montana shortly after giving him up for adoption.  She married someone else when she returned to Montana and had four children, three boys and a girl.  Bill had an instant family with his three brothers.  Sad to say, his sister died a year before we met the family.  Margaret was a rancher’s wife and comes from rugged stock, always living on a ranch.  She is a wonderful kind woman who loves her kids and loves that she has developed a wonderful relationship with Bill since finding him in 2001.  Margaret sold her 850 acre ranch and moved into a single-family home in the city and after selling that home, moved into a very nice retirement community where she enjoys a peaceful life with her two cats and her family within a few miles from her residence.  I could not ask for a better mother-in-law and Bill is thrilled to still have a mother in his life.

Bill’s step-mom in Montana is another terrific person.  Lorraine is the salt of the earth.  Who could ever ask for a better mother-in-law?  She runs a 100,000 acre cattle ranch now that her husband, Bill’s dad, passed away a few years ago.  She is quite the fashionista, golfer, and traveler and is very much involved in her family and in the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.  It is always fun to be with her out there on that ranch which is 53 miles from the nearest town, has an unpaved driveway 17 miles long, is not far from Glacier Park, and borders Alberta, Canada.  

I have been a mother-in-law myself several times and pride myself in being a great mother-in-law, never encroaching into the lives of my kids with their spouses or significant others.  I may not have made the choices my kids made in the past, but I kept my feelings to myself and let them make their own decisions and that is the way it should be.

I feel like a very lucky woman to have known these four phenomenal mothers-in-law. There are no mother-in-law jokes in our family.  But there sure are humorous and loving stories about them.

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Jim Caroompas (Editor) May 28, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Great column, Anne. I've been lucky too, in the mother-in-law department. My first was a sweet woman who tried to show her husband the bright side of the low-life hippie musician who married his daughter (to no avail, but she tried). My second was the amazing Gay Lee Edgar, who covered this city for the Martinez News Gazette, and was one of the most remarkable, resourceful and intelligent women I've ever had the pleasure to know. She taught me a lot about journalism, patience, and kindness in the face of adversity. She is sorely missed. My present mother-in-law is also a gracious, lovely woman who has shown her children how to survive all kinds of adversity with kindness, tolerance and strength. That's why I don't sing the Ernie K-Doe song "Mother In Law" in my shows. Mine have all been amazing women.
Christina (Tina) Reich May 28, 2012 at 03:50 PM
I so enjoyed reading this! Thank you!
barbara anne astorynspaugh May 28, 2012 at 05:01 PM
Great story Anne. You have an interesting life! ( . . )


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