Death And The Living
We’ve just winged back and forth to Atlanta for Margaret’s memorial, and all that air time swept my mind with echoes of life and death and life again. Because death, in the end, is really all about the living.
During the memorial days I heard many things about her, learned that many, many people really liked her. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them, but then, the feeling was mutual and I don’t think I can be faulted for disclosing the rocky road we traveled. People knew that we didn’t get along easily or well, and that was that.
But I tried to behave, succeeding best when we were far apart. I remembered flowers for her birthday and Mother’s Day, picked out lovely holiday gifts for her, sent the occasional photo. Dutifully, yes, but also with a small sense of pleasure in playing my role well: wife of the cherished only son. I wasn’t a 100% terrible daughter-in-law, but she still never approved of me.
From her Atlanta friends, though, I learned that she liked to brag about me anyway, about my published writing, and especially about French Letters. Four or five ladies in their late 70s and 80s came up to me after the service to tell me that they were faithful French Letters readers, because Margaret had turned them on to it. I can’t remember your names, ladies, because I met so many people that day, but I hope you’ll still feel welcome here after you read this.
Other people, a lot of them, spoke to me to thank me for saving Shel’s life over and over again. They seemed to credit me with all that the Chinese herb doctor and French touch healer had done for him, as well as what all the doctors of Western medicine have accomplished over the years. I guess they got that from Margaret too. She must have thought I had some anti-cancer magic touch, although even that didn’t make her like me. Clearly, though, she did respect me.
As we sorted through her things, readying her apartment for sale, I discovered that most of the gifts I’d given her over the years weren’t there. Not a single photo of me was to be found, not even our wedding photo. That’s how much she didn’t like me, to the very end, and I have to admit that it hurt to find that out.
It surprised me, to feel hurt, because after all, I won. I’m the one sniffing the Indian summer’s breeze, basking in my sunny garden like a cat, I’m the one who’s still here. I have nothing to complain about, I have the whole rest of my life before me. All those hurt feelings were just feelings, the most ephemeral of things, and they should be gone, as is she who provoked them.
She had a long and busy life, had a ton of friends, two children, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren. She had enough of everything to be generous, although not enough for me. She just didn’t care for me, but then, not everyone does, it’s all a matter of taste. It’s a lesson in paradox: to not see her as others did, to have her not see me as I see myself, to be respected but not liked, thanked but not loved.
I did enjoy sending her flowers, though, poring over the online images of lush bouquets, searching out the colors I knew she preferred. Stories of bad blood between women and their mothers-in-law are legion, there’s nothing more trite, and ours has come to an end. And yet, I’ll miss choosing those flowers. Next Mother’s Day I think I’ll send a radiant bunch to myself, perhaps with a card signed “With love, from Margaret.”