My mother-in-loves’s father died peacefully at home three years ago. The house on Stradella Road was filled with people he loved, and his hospital bed pointed towards the breathtaking view he treasured for over forty years. The nearing of the ending was not a surprise as ninety six years is a long time to inhabit a body. But we really knew that the time was approaching when he handed over his final legal brief the month before, as he always promised that when he stopped practicing law, he would stop living.
I hold the two years prior to his death in a sacred space. My mother-in-love’s step mother died, leaving breathing room for the clan to invade. Eggshells were replaced with mostly safe paths for bare feet to launch into the pool and linger in once guarded places. The cold house became warm. Pain was replaced by forgiveness. We awaited his jokes and stories, hearing as if it was the first time, treasuring as if it was the last. At night we sometimes dined at the Jonathan Club, and during the day, lovingly caressed his fine white hair when he wasn’t napping.
The day after the funeral, we traveled together, room by room, into a reverie of treasures. Art. Furniture. Jewelry. Awards. Newspaper clippings. Photographs. A museum of family artifacts needing to be regrouped and relocated like new exhibits premiering in the cities of Portland, Orlando, and Tucson. My mother-in-love gave generously. The gold band worn daily on the finger of her grandmother was my most beloved gift. I wore it often, sometimes in lieu of my wedding band, sometimes on my right hand alongside a treasured ring from my mother. I felt connected to this hardworking farm wife, whose only child was the father to the woman who would someday bear my husband.
And then one day it was gone.
I know it was carefully placed in the red Turkish dish on the kitchen counter as it was personal protocol before washing dishes. But it was not there when I went to retrieve it. I’ve turned the house upside down. Begged God for a miracle. Cried. Looked again. And again. And again. It has now been months, and it is as gone as the season on Stradella Road.
The time for confession came last week.
My brother-in-love has finally found his beloved. Lately, the family party line is lit up with talks of heirlooms, bridegrooms, and a new sister to embrace into the clan. My mother-in-love emailed to to make some plans and referenced my cherished ring. I knew that it was time, and I was scared. How do you admit to the giver that you have lost the irreplaceable?
Sucking in deeply, I exhaled the truth and waited.
Her words of grace covered over the tears streaming down my cheeks. My sorrow over the loss, she said, meant more to her than the gift itself ever had. She, too, was grieving, but also shared her own story of losing a precious ring, an engagement ring, years before. Grief was interrupted by joy in her heart as she identified that I was learning young the painful lesson of not holding on to earthly things too tightly. A mother’s love and God’s grace swirled around like a tornado, destroying the sorrow in my heart.
My first encounter with my mother and father-in-love was like a child being embraced at an international adoption on Gotcha Day. I was 23, but they’d been saving a place for me. I did not grow in my mother-in-love’s body for 9 months, but her heart had been waiting. She envelops like a force and has been a significant part of my growing up in the last decade and a half since our very first greeting. She prays for me. She cheers me on. We talk with brutal honesty, and at times, like with the ring, we need to ask for forgiveness. Our mother/daughter bond did not begin until midway through her sixth decade of life, and yet we cannot imagine life without each other.
And that is why she’s not my mother-in-law.
In front of the family farm in Red Oak, Iowa when we went to bury Rich’s Grandfather.