An Ode to my Mother-in-law

by Ilina Ewen

If I could turn back time, you’d understand: You’d see a slight thing with a mop of curly hair, dungarees and no shoes. She always had dirt under her nails, much to the dismay of her tidy mother and proper sister. She frolicked in fields and preferred riding horses to playing piano. She was a rascally tomboy at a time society expected her to be a dainty flower. Laverne eschewed dresses and described herself as “sports-minded.”
She favored natural hues and sensible shoes, corduroy pants or anything adorned with horses.

As we strolled through land that was once part of her family farm, my mother-in-law told my sons about life when she was their age. She chattered about how rows of crops and barns gave way to ranch houses and sidewalks, how back in the day she pulled her dog in a wagon and weaseled her way into the boys’ basketball games, how her cheeky grin earned her a front seat ride in the milk delivery truck her sister’s beau drove around the village. When we passed the cemetery, she pointed out where her sister and the beau (who became her husband of over 50 years), were buried. There lie her mother, father and countless cousins, too. It was then that I started to lean in more closely to hear her stories.

When she met me 20-odd years ago, Laverne remarked that it was the only time she’d been taller than an adult. She’d always been small but fierce. She had opinions that matched her values and actions to back them all up. She was tough yet tender, a product of a hard life on the farm in the chill of Midwest winters, of raising six children. She was a feminist of sorts, though I doubt that word was even in her vernacular. She was an avid reader and would put down her newspaper at day’s end to tune in to David Letterman. She cracked up at irreverent jokes, nary a blush passing her cheeks. I always imagined her as a female version of Dennis the Menace.

I didn’t grow up around the elderly; I have only vague memories of my own grandparents. The first significant time I spent with the aging was when I visited Manitowoc, Wisconsin back in the late 90s with my boyfriend (now my husband). It seemed his small town was teeming with aging family, and at first I was uncomfortable. Of course, that has all changed. Most of the people I met all those years ago have passed. Laverne remained with us until last July. She was a testament to Midwestern grit. But gone were the days of romping in the park, splaying out on the family room carpet to play Perfection with the boys or shooting hoops, granny-style, in the driveway. She’d been a marvel all these years, a picture of spunk. It was haunting to see a glimpse of the spirited woman she once was: curls thinned so there was more scalp than hair, cheeks hollow, stature hunched, her voice a whisper. You’d still catch her with newspaper in hand, reading glasses atop her head as if she, too, was denying the trappings of aging. She spent many of her later days in the bed that was moved to the living room, a caregiver or family member holding constant vigil, ready to offer care as scant repayment for what she’d done for others.

Laverne spoke little the last years, so we treasured her stories even more. We leaned in and furrowed our brows to make sense of what she uttered. Her memories were fleeting; and she wavered in an ethereal place that never quite reached lucidity. From one moment to the next we would question if she even recognized us. But then there would be an ever-so-slight spark in her eye and a faint squeeze of her hand on my arm, and I knew she knew. When we last saw her she told us to have a safe trip. These simple words were poignant, proof that she recognized us and knew we traveled far to see her. Through the outbursts, confusion and sorrow, there were flashes of brightness. Dementia had its grip on her, but it didn’t define her.

While it seems a simple woman from a tiny town in Wisconsin led an unremarkable life, the contrary is true: Laverne’s life was remarkable. She was a quiet force, steadfast ally, loving mother, indulging grandmother, opinionated voter and more. I offer thanks to this woman, Laverne, for giving me her greatest gift: my husband. She set an example for a child who grew up be a feminist, a father who parents instead of babysits and a man who sees the simple things and the fine things as synonymous. I look to her relationship with my husband to learn how to parent my own sons. Most importantly, she debunked stereotypes to teach me and my children that mothers-in-law must not be beastly and grandmas can be badass.

Ilina Ewen is an “accidental activist” who champions public education, equity, global health and food insecurity. She’s a doting mom
to two sons, Carter and Neal, and an Audrey Hepburn fan.