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Happy (Former) Mother (in Law)'s Day

In May of 2000, I met my mother-in-law, Peggy, for the first time--days before my wedding to her son...
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In May of 2000, I met my mother-in-law, Peggy, for the first time--days before my wedding to her son.

The Polaroid photo we sent to her was taken at an odd angle, and in that way that you think bad photos of you are good and good photos of you are bad, I didn't snap to it. She was too sweet to inquire about it to her son, but I imagine that her involuntary matriarchal anxiety about funny-looking grandchildren was appeased when she saw me in person. "Oh!" she said. "You're pretty!"

As the milestones of my early marriage ticked by: the honeymoon, first anniversary, the two children, the cross-country move to a more sustainable city, the first house bought...Peggy visited at least once a year, bringing with her small, thoughtful presents, and springing for dinners out.

But as my marriage's knotty problems grew denser and more volatile, I remember feeling more uptight around Peggy.

In hindsight, it's clear why; when my husband and I were home alone, our unhappiness could go unnoticed. When she came to visit, we both felt pressure to Be Happier, which only highlighted to me how much we weren't. Exhausted by stress and strain, and depressed, the simplest tasks seemed impossible, including being a good hostess.

One moment stands out in my memory. The children, two and four, were being their usual bumptious selves.

"When my sons were their age, I was stricter," she said.

The words threw me into a morass of defensiveness and pique. If I were stricter, the kids would be more well-behaved.

Later, I started crying as I chopped the dinner vegetables. "What's the matter?" Peggy asked.

"You think I should be stricter with the kids. You don't think I'm doing a good job as a mother."

"No!" she said, tears springing to her eyes. "I meant that I wish I were less strict, like you."


The next time Peggy came to visit, she had a surprise.

"I got us tickets to a Benise, concert," she said excitedly. "He's coming to perform in Albuquerque. Girls' night out!"

Although I had never heard of Benise, I was happy for some respite.

Roni Benise turned out to be positive-thinking World Music beefcake, the sensitive, intellectual woman's kind.

All evening long, Benise and his entourage did their Glee-ful thing, Benise exhorting us to live our truth, be genuine, enjoy the magic all around us...and seize the day!

I had spent my twenties loving on emo doomers like Lisa Germano and the Smiths. Although Benise was unarguably cheesy, it was the kind of top-notch Manchego that my soul needed.

Most of Benise's fans were women of a certain age who were panting and straining to get his attention. I was just happy to be out of the house.

So when Benise decided to throw his guitar pick out into the audience as a good luck token, I wasn't really paying attention...and then the little plastic pick lodged in my nursing-plumped cleavage. Benise smiled and winked at me, then ran across the stage, sweat droplets flying from his mane like scattered crystals.

Maybe it was a sign.

A few days after I moved out with the kids to a small house nearby, Peggy called.

"I just want you to know that you're still my daughter," she said. "That's not going to change."

"Thank you," I said, and hurried off the phone. I felt ill with guilt and grief over my impending divorce. Her kindness in the midst of her own grief was too much to absorb.

Four years have passed. My ex has moved on, and I've moved on too. Our kids have discovered a lot of resilience, and delight in the presence and involvement of their birth parents' new partners.

I've moved so far on that I'm now partnered with a woman--and very happily so. Benise's exhortations stuck--right in my heart center--along with the pick. Live your truth. Be genuine. Enjoy the magic all around you.

And seize the day.

This past week, I flew to San Francisco for business, but decided to stay an extra day to spend some time with Peggy.

She, her son Michael, and one of their bon vivant friends met me for dinner in the city. We walked to the BART (Michael insisted on handling my suitcase), took the train to her house, and Peggy put me up with infinite thoughtfulness. In the morning, she and I and Michael had a wonderful breakfast at the Depot Cafe in San Carlos.

My own father's family is very wedded to trains; three generations have served as conductors. Trains lull me the way others feel soothed in the berth of a sailboat. Sitting with Peggy and Michael in that old train station, surrounded by trains, schedules, and maps, I felt as close to steeped in family--and its attendant grace--as I ever have.

When my mother and father split up, her relationship with my paternal grandmother Marie de facto ended. My mother wept and pined for my grandmother; my grandmother asked about my mother every time I saw her. Neither of them picked up the phone, although I urged them to. Oddly, my grandmother died on the day of my mother's third marriage. A final communication? I wouldn't doubt it.

There's a guide book, Not Your Mother's Divorce, which I haven't read but I've seen because it keeps company with my divorce anthology, Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On. Both titles speak to a cheeky, less encumbered experience of divorce. It's not only possible for my generation--it's my ongoing goal. Am I divorced? Yes. But please hold the hairshirt.

This Mother's Day, I honor Peggy, along with my mother and all those who have mothered me--and the ways that motherhood continues to mold, stretch, and sweeten my tart self.

Broken family? The term does not apply any more than catching that pick between my ta-tas makes me a hussy (I earn that title in other ways). I was in the right place at the right time. "Right" may not always refer to the most comfortable place, but nothing worth having ever came easy.

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