We got the news Monday from Hospice: My former father-in-law, who has spent the last few years fighting off a mindboggling variety of illnesses, is nearing the end of his final struggle.
For this longtime career military officer, losing any battle can’t be easy. But for his beloved wife and my one-time mother-in-law, who has adored this man since they were both teenagers, the consequences are even more devastating.
These are not people who give up easily on things they care about. I found this out firsthand after my divorce from their son, when they made it clear right from the start that my daughters and I – regardless of what any legal document might say – were still part of their family.
“You know you’re welcome to come here and visit any time,” we were told over and over. And even now, more than two decades later, I get a card every Christmas – including this past one, when illness had taken a toll on both of them – signed simply, “Mom and Dad.” John Steinbeck would have loved them.
Growing up during the Depression, family was about all either of them had. Her family lived in California , where her dad was caretaker of the estate of a wealthy family. My father-in-law’s roots were in the Midwest, until a drought turned that part of the country into the infamous “Dust Bowl” and forced hundreds of thousands of families – his included – to California in a desperate search for jobs.
Given that kind of odds, just surviving would have been noteworthy; lots of people didn’t. But for these two, the “Grapes of Wrath” years actually had a kind of storybook ending: They met, married, had children – and stuck it out together through more than six turbulent decades.
When I first got to know them, they were living in Pennsylvania where he had found a new career as a college administrator after retiring from the army. They had settled into suburban life, raising their sons and daughters and caring for the lush split level home they filled with European artwork and antiques purchased while he was serving a tour in Germany .
They weren’t quite sure what to make of me, the first person who had showed any interest in marrying one of their children.
They played bridge, I preferred rummy. They adored dogs; I was a cat lover. They liked Nixon; I thought he was, to put it politely, crooked as a dog’s hind leg.
Gradually, though, we got to know each other – and we liked what we found.
I’ll never forget the day my father-in-law, my husband and I were all outside trying to fix something and I grabbed a pair of pliers. Dad looked at me in astonishment. “That’s the first time I ever saw a woman pick up a pair of pliers like she knew what to do with them,” he commented.
My mother-in-law had different skills: Long before anybody ever heard of Martha Stewart, she was the ultimate homemaker. Her house was spotless, her laundry was put away the instant it was dry and her meals were always on time.
Even more impressive, she accomplished all that despite a not-so-secret vice: soap operas. Every day at lunchtime she’d make herself a sandwich, grab a cold drink and park herself in front of the TV to watch her favorite show.
Her campaign for a grandchild began a few months after I joined the family. “When are you going to have a baby?” she asked bluntly one evening during dinner.
“Oh, in about 10 years,” I answered – prophetically, as it turned out.
My older daughter was their first grandchild, and no baby ever got a warmer welcome. Despite their fear of driving on mountains, my father-in-law climbed behind the wheel of their Winnebago and he and Mom headed to our house in West Virginia to check out the latest addition to the family.
They repeated the process when our second daughter was born the year after we moved to Tennessee .
“Can’t you find a house on flat land?” my father-in-law laughed, after they had fought their way through the S turns on the way up Signal Mountain and parked their motor home in our driveway.
A lot has happened since then. We’ve all gotten a lot older. That first grandchild they welcomed now has a teenaged daughter of her own. My marriage is over. My parents, the ones who raised me, are dead.
Through it all, the good decades and the bad ones, my second mom and dad have hung in there. Still together, still in love.
I would have liked a different last chapter, one where the hero and heroine really did get to live happily forever after.
But Steinbeck himself would have been hard pressed to come up with a better plot.