I met my former mother-in-law, “Mama Lou,” and my former father-in-law, “Poppo,” when I was not yet 20 years old. I hitched a ride to meet them, terrified because I’d spoken to my future mother-in-law on the phone and she sounded exactly like Lauren Bacall.
I arrived at their home in Wisconsin and my future father-in-law threw open the door and said, “You must be Carrie! Can I get you a drink?”
In the more than 20 years that followed, I never felt anything less than welcome in this family. More surprisingly, I was still welcomed after I was divorced from their son, and my three sisters-in-law announced that, since I could no longer be their sister-in-law, I’d have to be their sister. (This did not go over well with my ex-husband’s second wife, apparently, but she didn’t last long, so I guess it didn’t matter.)
When I met my husband, Peter, seven years later, I brought him to the wedding of my youngest sister (formerly sister-in-law). Mama Lou grabbed him by both shoulders. “You treat her right, you hear?” she ordered poor Peter, who has never treated me any other way. Then Mama Lou announced that, since I was her daughter, Peter must be her newest son-in-law.
I know a lot of people would think that was a bit much. But something that would be a stretch for most people was no stretch at all for Mama Lou, whose heart was big enough to accommodate all of us.
Poppo died last winter, and yesterday, Peter and I went to celebrate his life. It was a traditional Irish wake, with lots of good food and drink and stories. Peter kept asking, “I’m sorry, who are you again?” and I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to be married to such a good sport and to be surrounded by so much love and to still be a part of this wonderful family.
Because I still am a part of the family. Some might say I am an unnecessary part — like an appendix or a sixth finger — but I am a part.
Mama Lou is now 93 and has not been feeling well lately. There was some doubt whether she would be able to make it to the wake. But she was there.
She told the story of how she and Poppo met and what Poppo would have thought of the evening’s gathering. He would have been a little embarrassed, of course. Mama Lou has always been more comfortable in the limelight. But he would have been very glad to see us all together having a good time.
As the evening wore on, more and more people came over to Mama Lou and hugged her. They were long hugs, the kind of hugs you give to a 93-year-old person you love very much when there is really nothing left to say, when it has all been said and a hug is the best way to make clear what you are feeling right now — in the precious moment that is the present.
I hesitate to use the word “blessed” because it implies some inside knowledge of the divine that I will never claim to have. And yet, I know I was blessed when that door was thrown open by Poppo, more than half a lifetime ago, and I was welcomed into this family.
“You take good care of her,” Mama Lou told Peter again last night, as we prepared to leave.
“I’ll do my best,” he said. Mama Lou smiled, and I gave her a very long hug.