My mother-in-law died of cancer on October 2 at her home in north London. Unlike my father-in-law who shocked us when he died suddenly last year, we had known for some months this was coming. But naturally expecting it and experiencing it are of course two different things.
She had been born in London in 1931 and had reached the “milestone” age of 90 back in May. Yet nowadays we no longer really consider “90” to be nearly as “old” as it once was, and with her that was definitely the case. Until that same month when she took a terrible fall on a London sidewalk outside the home of one of her son’s and badly broke a wrist, despite the cancer that had been diagnosed in early 2020 until the last months of her life she had never seemed “frail.” Well into her 80s she could play 18 holes of golf and thrash women golfers at her club who were 50 years younger.
Her parents came over in the 1920s from what is today the Republic of Ireland. She had also spent some of her childhood over there, including some of early World War II, under the care of an aunt. To the end of her life, those childhood years living in Ireland were special and happy memories for her.
Another was how in the early 1950s with several girlfriends and only a little cash she traveled across parts of France and Italy. Pizza was to us forever being compared to the pizza she recalled eating on that trip many decades ago; no pizza since, she insisted, matched it. She liked to tell another story as well of trying to say to some Italian police officer “thirteen, thirteen” (or some number like that) in Italian when she struggled to explain how many days she would still be in Italy. “Impossible! Impossible!” he shook his disbelieving head and admonished her… because it turned out he was asking her age and not how many days she had left in Italy.
She met my future father-in-law in the later 1950s when at a party he asked her if she needed a lift home. “Ooh, he has a car,” she told us she had thought. It turned out, though, it was his friend who had the car – his friend drove them all home. Despite that initial disappointment, they were happily married from 1962 until his death in March 2020.
She possessed an almost perverse pleasure in trying to remain “out of touch.” Two decades ago after a Christmas play she took her two eldest grandchildren to McDonald’s, and she had never in her life been in a McDonald’s. The kids, who were both under age 8, grabbed a table for the three of them, and she sat down with them. After a few minutes one of the kids told her, “Grandma, you have to go to the till to get the food.” She had thought there was table service.
We could never get her to use a mobile phone – because, I suspect, she saw no need for it. However, in the last five years of her life her iPad had become a constant companion… especially because she loved Facetime as a means to communicate with family and friends. Suddenly, in that latter case, she was pleased to be wildly up to date.
Yet in the past she had been clearly on the cutting edge of life at times and proudly so. John F. Kennedy was as close to a political hero, I think, as she ever had in her own lifetime. Time and again, she insisted I just did not understand what JFK’s election in 1960 had meant to so many in her generation; and she was probably right.
Although she had been born in England, and lived her entire adult life in London, she always also insisted… she was “Irish.” I have to admit I thought that was to a degree hilarious. Whenever she started to raise the Irish flag, I needled her quite a few times over the years: “You aren’t Irish. Forget about your parentage. For one, you can’t stand music, and I have never known an Irish person who hates music.”
It took a while also after her daughter agreed to marry me to get my by then mother-in-law to fully comprehend that I was an American of many generations, not an Italian just because that was the origin of my surname. (Her English – and now also American – daughter, also born in London, speaks better Italian than I do.) She seemed eventually to have, in her fashion, figured things out. While she was staying with us as we looked after her most of the time this past summer, during Wimbledon I was in the dining room trying to write and at one point from in front of the lounge television next door she rooted out loud, declaring: “Good shot! Brilliant! Robert, who is this girl with the Romanian name? Is she English? She’s marvelous.”
Life is never a straight line for any of us as we know. In the end what should matter most in our memories of those we loved who have left us should be the wonderful ups we may have shared. My now late mother-in-law too was, well, marvelous… and her caring, warmth and wit and so much more will be forever missed by all of the family and friends she has left behind.
God bless you all.✝️