Until almost the end of her life, my mother-in-law did not like me and did not accept me as part of the family. She thought of me as a good-for-nothing who married her daughter solely to exploit her. As if my wife would put up with fools and moochers!
My wife always said that it is a shame that her mother never tried to know me better because she and I had similar backgrounds. Never mind that we were from different continents and different generations.
Those of you reading this already know about my upbringing in the southern Italian countryside. My mother-in-law, too, spent her childhood in a small country village at the foot of a mountain in her Central American homeland. Her mother’s family did not farm but did own a small plot of land on which they grew vegetables and fruits and raised chickens. My mother-in-law was an only child; in contrast, her own mother was the eldest of six and her siblings grew up to have many children of their own.
Like me, my wife’s mother had many happy memories of doing things with her cousins and friends, such as climbing trees and eating fruit right off them, chasing each other among the trees and shrubbery, swimming in streams fed by ice-cold water that rushed down from the mountain. She also had clear memories of her uncles, who would return from the mountain with burlap sacks filled with coffee beans. Something of a tomboy, she sometimes accompanied her male relatives when they hunted pigeons and other birds, which served as dinner in times of privation.
My mother-in-law’s parents were both educated as teachers, but their salaries were meager. The mother earned a little extra cash with articles that she wrote for local newspapers. The marriage did not succeed. That was during the 1930s, on the verge of WWII, so crushing poverty probably took its toll. My wife also suspects domestic violence; her mother never admitted to anything like that. After her parents separated, my mother-in-law never saw her father again. Later on, she heard that he had made a new family with someone else.
Those must have been bad years for my mother-in-law because she shared very few stories from that time. She grew up to be distant and not disposed to show affection. Still, she liked to laugh, enjoyed spending afternoons at the movies, and tuned into radio stations that played early rock-and-roll – she was in her 20s when Elvis hit the scene. Instead of lecturing her children, she would make them watch police dramas on the TV, after which she would say, “See? That’s what happens when you use drugs and hang around bad people.”
My wife’s parents moved to the U.S. when she was a toddler, and they had more children over the years. But the marriage eventually crumbled. Her father’s work kept him away from the family for months at a time, leaving his young, non-English speaking wife to fend for herself and three youngsters. The family also moved a lot, changing apartments as rents rose or neighborhoods became more dangerous. For my wife and her siblings, their mother was their sole source of stability.
A bright woman with a curious mind, my mother-in-law learned English by watching her favorite TV shows, “Gunsmoke,” “Perry Mason,” and “Bonanza,” and taking adult-education classes. After many years of sadness and dissatisfaction, she left her husband, remarried, lost her second husband to illness, and spent her elder years on projects with her church group.
My mother has enjoyed a life that has been much more stable and less dramatic. She never had to move more than a few kilometers from where she was born. My mother grew up surrounded by siblings, of which she is the oldest. She loved to have people around, to have a good laugh, to play cards, to go to the religious processions and festivals in our area.
Then there was her love of cooking. Each year, when it was time for the men to slaughter a hog, my mother would pitch in with her sisters and other female relatives to prepare special dishes for the family members who gathered together to share in the bounty. At Easter and Christmas, my mother would go through countless kilos of flour as she baked pizza piena, pizza con l’erba, and panettones with custard fillings.
You can tell that I associate many of my childhood memories with food. That’s why I feel so sad to see her now, frail, with memory problems, unable to even cook.
Early on, my mother did grumble a little about my not marrying an Italian. But my mom always treated my wife with affection and kindness. She still does.
In the last couple of months before her untimely death, my mother-in-law looked tired and resigned. It was as if the struggle to live had become too much, even though she was not suffering from a fatal illness.
It was then that her attitude towards me changed, if just a little. Whenever my wife would make a mild complaint about me, her mother would pipe up and tell her to give me a break, to not be so hard on me. She defended me! Who knows what sort of self-reckoning my mother-in-law engaged in as she saw death creeping up on her.