My mother-in-law was a woman I loved and admired and still do, years after she died. We didn't always agree on many things--"His imagination could use some stunting," she told me once, when I said that TV would stunt my little boy's imagination and my candy-free Easter baskets (filled with many other delights that weren't edible) were rendered useless when she showed up with baskets for each of my children overflowing with sugar and green slime in a toy garbage can. She followed this up by immediately showing them disgusting things they could do with the slime. They loved it and I continued to love her.
My mother-in-law slowly lost her memory. Her husband had to face the death of their oldest son alone. "You'd think all those flowers would tell her something," he grumbled in frustration and heartbreak. She rarely spoke but she laughed often. Even locked in Alzheimer's, Wanda Brown loved life.
I think of her often as I grow older. When she was middle-aged, her equanimity and humor and joy made me know at twenty-five that forty-five didn't have to mean becoming Whistler's Mother. And I hope I can savor life as jubilantly as she did up until the end.
Wanda Brown went from being a beautiful girl to a chubby little snowball but when I tried to keep up with her once in an aerobics class when she was in her fifties and I in my early thirties, I was crippled for a week. She was just fine. We both loved to sing but she had the guts to sing in public behind a microphone. She divorced her handsome husband with the wandering eyes and remarried him a decade or so later after he had learned his lesson. She made lemon cookies and bootleg Kahlua and one Christmas sewed gaucho pants for all of her daughters. I got a pair too. "I'd rather gain one than lose one," she said about her children's choice of spouses. With eight children, some of whom married more than once, she gained quite a few extras.
She loved to read. She loved to dance. She loved the Easter Egg Hunt in the snow that she put on every year for her grandchildren. Her legacy is one of generous, unconditional, motherly love, given by a woman whose own mother died young.
She stood beside me when I was in labor with my first baby right up until I went into the delivery room. My second came unexpectedly; the fetal monitoring machine refused to acknowledge his imminent arrival and Wanda left me to go back to work, I asked her to call her son to come to the hospital right away and she did. "I should have known the baby was coming when you told me to call Jimmy," she said later.
We are very different and I can never hope to be the woman Wanda was. But I can damn well try to follow her example as much as I can. Maybe I should start with baking lemon cookies...