Mother-In-Law: A Biography (Unauthorized)
“Well, you can’t thread a moving needle,” was my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s aphoristic response in her accented English to our announcement that we were pregnant and about to get married.
I felt immediate admiration for this woman who I would soon be calling “mom.”
Even though many of her stories take place in Romania, she is German and will correct you if you say otherwise. Her roots are firmly embedded in the chaos of a war-torn Europe. She comes from good peasant stock. She has that Old World knack for telling stories of the past, stories she tells over and over again like the strange mythic tales of Hesiod, the repetition making myth a part of our collective unconsciousness.
Sometimes, while she tells us one of her stories, I find myself nodding knowingly. 3
When she was very young, she watched her mother die. She’ll tell you that her mother suffered from an inexplicable illness that confined her to her bed where she sipped, continuously, opium tea. One quiet night, her mother called her into the bedroom, held her close awhile, and died.
She said her screams brought the other tenants in the building running.
After her mother’s death, she became the mother of the house—she tried her best to care for her father and for her older brother. Sometimes her father slipped away into sudden fits of anger and depression and he would send her from the
house, afraid that he might kill her. Sometimes her brother beat her if he caught her doing things he thought she ought not to do—smoking cigarettes, staying out too late, talking to boys.
She will tell you that she has no use for men. 5
Her first (of seven) was such a difficult birth she thought that she would die or he would die before the end, but the midwife there said that the frog that she had put into the water basin had not drowned—everything would be alright—keep bearing down. The midwife, it turned out, was right. She doesn’t talk a lot about the man who helped create this child. Her silence, I like to think, locks away a dusty memory that, possibly, might resemble love.
When pressed, she will tell you that this man, like so many others, perished in the war.
I met her brother once when he was visiting from Windsor, a quiet, diabetic man. They didn’t talk a lot, but she brought him water glasses full of rye, lightly coloured with ginger ale and ice. Eventually, the diabetes killed him. In the war (as she tells it) he had a commander who was going to take the troop on a suicide mission, but something “happened” to that commander (something that her brother never talks about) and the mission never went.
Some men, I suppose, lived somehow through all that madness.
She remembers that her brother came home one day on leave and when he visited, he found her pregnant and without a man, and he beat her black and blue. She also tells of the times when as children, she slept together in the same bed as her brother, and he’d fart and pull the covers over her head.
She laughs when she tells you this, love floating in her laughter like the bubbles from her boiling pea soup.
After her brother’s funeral, she slept like an exhausted child in the back of the car on the drive back from Windsor. She was seventy years old. I don’t remember seeing her cry, but her sorrow, like interminable waves from a sea of tears, rolled and crashed on the shores of our perception.
We kept watch for her, alone out there in all of that sadness.
After the war, she met a man who had a daughter but no wife; she had a son but no husband. Conveniently, they married. Two children later, they sailed for Canada. Four children after that, he had his first stroke. He was in his mid- thirties, but was like a child himself. We have a crumpled black-and-white photo of him poised, mid-stride, among some trees, smiling sheepishly. After he died, she will explain, her life was very hard.
I realize that I lose something in the transcription.
We make fun of her sometimes. She likes to read the “People” magazine that Terry brings her once a week or so. She’ll say, “Ach, that Jerry Sprinkler,” or “I don’t like Bruce Willie,” or “that Shannon Stone plays such dirty parts,” or “Patrick Shvantsig, he’s good looking.” I have a feeling that she makes some of these little blunders on purpose. When we leave, she sometimes lets me kiss her on her soft, soft wrinkled cheek; she tells her daughter that she loves her.
One time, recently, Terry cried when we left her mother’s place; I think I understand what she was feeling.
’Mother-In-Law: A Biography’ was first published by paperplates.org (2009)
Fred Meissner is published in Ascent Aspirations, Electro-Twaddle, Armada Quarterly, Poetry Canada, and had a broadside selected for Rubicon Press. He has also had personal essays appearing in Cezanne’s Carrot, Toward the Light, Inscribed, and The Fieldstone Review, and he was invited to read some of his poems at the Eden Mills Writers Festival.