Monday, May 14, 2012

The other mother

Inexplicably, this post didn't post yesterday, so a day late but a dollar long, here it is:

When I married the Beve 28 years ago, I gained something. Someone, I should say. I'd known her for years, of course. One knows their neighbors in our town, especially the ones who live across the street and stand head and shoulders above the rest. And, unfortunately, have the perfect yard for cutting from one street to another. Beve's family did. If I didn't cut through that yard, it took HOURS longer to go from my friend's house all the way down to the end of the block and back up the street to our house. Sometimes I chanced it. But there were also times that her firm voice came out her kitchen window and said, "Did your parents really teach you that it's okay to cut through other people's yards? You wouldn't want a path in your yard now, would you?" And I'd slink back out their drive way and walk the long walk of shame around the corner, knowing she had windows out the front to watch me the whole way up the street if she wanted.

So I was a little afraid of Mrs. W when I was a child. She was tall and larger than life and didn't have to raise her voice to make me shake in my tennis shoes. She dressed with great style--with large pieces of jewelry that dangled around her neck, from her ears and jangled as she moved her large expressive wrists--in bold peacock colors--deep purples, royal blues, aquas and purples.  I saw her in the grocery store, at basketball games watching her son (my classmate), driving her Volvo, and was intimidated. Yep, intimidated.

Then I went to Finland. Then I came home from Finland, already unexpectedly falling for her son. She and Dr. W were back east that year, on Sabbatical to West Point. When they returned in June there was a welcome home neighborhood potluck for them. I probably would have blown it off another time--I was an adult then--but I was interested in anything that concerned that son, so I tagged along that night. And she was looking for some help unpacking their belongings quickly because of incoming guests two days later, and my mother (as usual) volunteered me.

So the next day I found myself in her kitchen with the extra tall counters, working side by side with the woman who'd become the Other Mother in my life. By the end of those two days, we were fast friends, laughing hysterically as we got down to the wire and began dumping belongings into any old drawer just so they'd be out of sight before the guests arrived.  These guests, by the way, included a new fiancee of her oldest son and two Finnish friends her sons were bringing home for a visit. This meant, of course, that the son I was trying to guard my heart from was on his way home as I was working with his mother. At the end of this unpacking project, Mrs. W's husband actually told his wife that he wouldn't mind if that son chose me to marry, making Grampie the first person to actually predict our marriage.

Eleven months later we were family. Mrs. W (a name I never called her again) became my 'Other Mother'. And gave me gifts for which I'll always be grateful. When I married her baby (as her youngest, Beve held a very special place in her heart), I became part of her pack, I suppose you could say. She let me in. And we dealt very well together. I listened to her when she complained about Grampie--one of her favorite phrases as the end of a complaint was "At least he doesn't beat me," which was guaranteed to make her laugh and look at her marriage in perspective. And she taught me--as well as I could be taught--how to be a gracious, easy host in my own home.

And then I had a child. And how the flood gates opened. Because The Other Mother was made to be a grandmother. She adored her grandchildren. Absolutely adored them. Every single one of them. I was privileged to see her with a brand new one five times and each time the very first thing she'd do was gently pull their hands out of the swaddling and say, "Ten long fingers. Perfect." She loved the idea of big W-sized hands and feet. She was so proud to be tall, and so proud that those babies were as well. Then she smiled her big giraffe smile, content with the world because her babies had babies and she could smother those babies with love in cuddles and gifts and parties and time.

And she did, every one of them, in every way possible. The Other Mother--Grammie--made everyday moments into parties. Tea parties, popcorn parties, peanut-butter and jelly parties, 'let's go down to the beach and have a picnic' parties.  She taught E how to sew (though it didn't stick) and sewed up a storm herself for those babies. She gave extravagant gifts--not in price, but in absolute thoughtfulness, in the sheer 'I know who you are' perfectness that I've never managed (though I've begun to see it duplicated in my children, having skipped me altogether!).

She got to enjoy those children too short a time, though. That's the sad story of The Other Mother. Beve and I were only married 7 years when she was diagnosed with cancer. She fought it a year, a year in which we lived with her and Grampie for a while, and down the road from them the rest of it, but a year in which she mostly didn't leave the couch, didn't have the energy to play with the children, or play with those babies as she was used to doing. The disease took a whole lot out of her, but her inability to be herself took more.  We were already missing her by the time she died just about a year to the day after that first tumor was discovered.

But we've also never stopped missing her. I haven't. Not for Beve and his siblings, not for myself and especially not for those grandchildren some of whom aren't even old enough to remember her at all. What they've missed is impossible to conceive.  This post is for them--to let them know that among those who have loved them in their lives was a tall, graceful woman who held them, cuddled them, smiled and laughed and was happier to be their Grammie than she had been to be anything else in her whole life. She told me once that she was born to be a Grammie. I believed her. I saw it.

So on this Mother's Day, I'm thinking of her. Wishing she could be here to see who all those babies have become in the last 18 years since she last saw them. I'm missing her for myself, and missing her more for them. Happy mother's Day, Barbara Wiley. You were the best Other Mother I could have wished for.

1 comment:

Elle said...

I wish I had known her!