November 23, 2019
My Mother-in-Love died this week. You might think that I made a mistake calling her my Mother-in-Love rather than Mother-in-law, but no, this is how we introduced each other, Daughter-in-Love and Mother-in-Love. Not right off the bat mind you. Her youngest son and I met and married young, very young, and I’m not so sure that everyone around us thought we would still be married 38+ years later. This was evidenced by her attempting to fix him up with a lovely Greek girl shortly after we began dating. After we were married however, she embraced our love for each other and welcomed me into their family.
She was first generation Greek American. Her father emigrated as a young adult and settled in the Denver area where he worked making wheels for locomotives and later as a coal miner. Once he saved enough money, he wrote to his mother in their small village saying he had found a husband for his sister and also asked her to send him a wife. Being adventurous young women in their late teens, the two crossed the oceans, arrived at Ellis Island and took a train to Denver to meet their future husbands. They did what so many emigrants have done before and since. They found a way to hold on to their heritage while embracing the fact that they were creating for themselves, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, the American dream.
My Mother-in-Love was beautiful and vivacious. The only girl and youngest of three, I’m told she was the apple of her Daddy’s eye. She was a risk taking, fun loving, gracious, devout, demanding, giving, willful working woman, and she was a survivor. After her first husband died at the age of 39, she found herself with five children to raise and support alone. She continued managing the business they had taken on together, finding it necessary to ask her mother for help with her children. She remarried and gave birth to her sixth child a few years later while working many days from 5:00 am to 5:00 pm. She employed friends and family over the years, many whose first job was washing dishes, wiping tables, filling the coke machines and doing the next day’s food prep. My husband learned how to run the cash register while standing on a stool at the tender age of 6 or 7. It’s no secret where he gets his work ethic from.
She loved to cook, and was exceptional at it. Stories abound about her delicious Greek chicken, tiropitas, spanakopita, dolmathes, paximathia, baklava, rizogalo, and lamb with spaghetti. She was a strict teacher when it came to teaching others EXACTLY how she wanted Greek dishes prepared and it took a period of testing before she was willing to let me in on the secrets passed down from generations of Greek women. She was the Queen in every kitchen and I learned early on if they were coming to visit (which they did at least once or twice a year for sometimes a month at a time), I was to yield the kitchen and best of luck finding the pans, bowls, condiments and utensils that had been relocated to a “better” place because after all, it just made good sense. She did this not because she was trying to be difficult, but because that was just her way. I found this hard at times and our willful and strong woman ways could clash. This dance continued, her rearranging my space, me moving everything back when she left, until she could no longer manage the kitchen and this broke my heart. My memories of her teaching our daughter to make kourambiethes, dressed in matching aprons, flour and powdered sugar covering the counters and floor, laughing with sticky hands as they touched each others noses is unforgettable. As is Lene excitedly bursting through the door with purple fingers exclaiming that Yiayia showed her how to “pop the eyeballs” out of squid (being prepared for the Greek Festival) still makes me laugh.
My Mother-in-Love died eleven days before her 94th Birthday. She began taking medication for Alzheimers disease in 2005 and lived in memory care for the last five years of her life. She never knew about my cancer diagnosis, she had already slipped too far away from the world she tried so desperately to hold on too. While I would have loved to unburden myself over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, instead we simply held hands and that was enough. She had an uncanny way of knowing what one needed, maybe not wanted, but needed even before they did.
I spent several hours with her in the days before she passed and it was impossible not to wonder if this was what my own death would be like. I know it sounds a bit morbid but as I’ve said before, the after death part doesn’t bother me, it’s the dying process that makes me a bit squeamish. I try and balance these conflicting feelings by attempting to live in the moment and yet do what needs to be done to be prepared. I guess I could call myself a Mystic Realist, it seems to fit.
I’ve had the privilege to sit with a few people before their deaths and have experienced some incredible moments. A special moment that stands out with her was when she looked out across the room and said, “Well, Hello!” as if a friend or loved one had just stopped by for a visit. Another poignant statement was, “I’m in between here and there.” At one point a look of wonderment appeared on her face and she said with almost palpable awe, “Isn’t that something!” as she gazed into a reality that only she could see. There are those who will say that the brain does many things as it responds to a lack of oxygen and hallucinations often occur. However, I have spoken with several people working in Hospice who say that the dying process is a sacred honor that they are humbled to witness. Many come to believe that what is taking place is nothing less than supremely divine. I choose to believe that she generously shared what generations and generations have experienced before and yes, I will too…death is simply a transition, but letting go is hard.
One of my favorite sayings is “May you receive a gentle landing.” I know she was welcomed with open arms as she crossed over from this world to return home. She deserves the softest of landings.
I will remember and cherish her strong yet callused hands, her quick laugh, her equally quick temper, her love of family, the sparkle in her eyes, her giving spirit and her gently flawed humanity.
Mother-in-Love, I am blessed to have known and loved you.
May her memory be eternal.