My father-in-law grew up in foster homes, a dreadful childhood in New York City that left deep scars. My mother-in-law lived in upstate New York all her life, if not in luxury then at least without the type of deprivation he had known. The two of them never (or hardly ever) exchanged a harsh word. She thought he was perfect, and he didn’t mind that she felt that way.
I met them in 1961, when I was courting their daughter. He was out of work, she was nervous and apprehensive. They lived in a small, modest ranch house in Albany. They had a small circle of friends, pretty much kept to themselves, and enjoyed reading and watching TV.
He found work, she gave piano lessons. I married their daughter, the years passed, grandchildren arrived. Then, in 1983, their daughter became ill and died. Their other child, a son, lived far away. They remained in their small house, family and friends provided what support they could, and they lived out the months and years, holding each others’ hands.
Most families accumulate a history over the years, and this one certainly did. Some of it was positive, some was not. There was tension with several relatives, including my father-in-law’s father in New York. Given his unhappy childhood, I guess you can’t blame my father-in-law for feeling bitter. Until his daughter and I paid a visit to her grandfather in the Bronx, near the end of his life, she had never met him. And there were problems with other family members – slights, misunderstandings, failures of communication – probably not unlike most families. I was just a son-in-law, so I managed to remain a spectator to most of it. For others, however, lines were drawn. As we all learn sooner or later, Hallmark cards are mostly fiction.
Eventually my in-laws became frail, and four years ago he died at 90. She could still get up and play the piano. I always found it ironic that one of her favorites was “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Apart from caregivers and the occasional visitor, she was mostly alone with her memories – hearing little, seeing less, remembering her lost ones. She would have been 97 on July 4 (a birthday she shared with the United States and one of its presidents, Calvin Coolidge), but she died this past January. I last saw her a month before, when my son and I drove to Albany. She was still at home, and my son thought she knew we were there. I wasn’t so sure. We both realized that quality of life was no longer present, and her days were drawing to a close.
When you live to such an age, there aren’t many friends left to attend the funeral, much less come to the house afterwards. Still, the group was surprisingly large. Relatives came from California and Florida and North Carolina, as well as Boston and Albany, and a few friends too – maybe 25 people in all. We gathered with sadness, but not grief – she was 96, after all. We all went from the cemetery back to the house.
And then a wonderful thing happened. Not fireworks, despite her birth date – instead laughter, that precious commodity, started to fill the room. People who had not seen or spoken to each other in many years – cousins, uncles, in-laws – were enjoying being together. It went on for the afternoon and into the evening. No one was anxious to leave. It was, in other words, a celebration of life, as these events are meant to be. Dinner at an Albany restaurant late that evening came down to six, the rest having departed for home. I’m sorry I wasn’t at that dinner, but I heard about it the next day. “It was wonderful,” my brother-in-law reported.
So, my mother-in-law accomplished in death something she was unable to do in life. She brought members of her family together, and she left all of us with a happy memory of the day we said good-bye.