My Mother-in-Law

Is it a factor of getting old, or do younger people also look back on those who have played a major role as their life unfolded? I don’t conjecture about what might have been had I made different choices along the way, but find it ever fascinating to ponder the impact of lives lived by others that entwined with my own.

I’ve told this story before but retell it today as winter recedes, as homage to a woman born on the first day of spring in the year 1900, and fifty years later became my mother-in-law.

I was 18 years old when I was introduced to Leora Larsen by Len, my husband-to-be, little realizing then how the life this woman had already lived, and her years to come, would significantly influence my future.

Leora was only five years old when her mother died of tuberculosis. Speaking of the memory of this loss was one of the few times her eyes would tear, for she disdained self-pity. Her father, unable to cope with his young family on his own, placed her in the care of two kindly women who owned a bakery and took in foster children.

Attending school only until the eighth grade, she helped out in the shop and at a very early age began to care for the younger foundlings who followed her into foster care, many of them babies. At the age of 18, she met and married the man who was her husband for over fifty years, and together they raised four children, living for all but a few of those years in small mid-west prairie towns, which during their lifetime became suburban Chicago.

Leora’s role as the full time caretaker of the family was never in question, although stretched to the breaking point when numbers around the dinner table grew during the depression years, as relatives unable to afford their own housing moved in under their small roof. Her husband, Merrill, who throughout his work-life was an electrician for the railroad, was a stolid and quiet man who established the boundaries and direction of their life together, her influence quiet and subtle. As a visitor, I rarely witnessed either of them touch the other, or become engaged in but brief conversations, yet I never had cause to question their mutual devotion or respect, their feelings always closely held.

When I came to know her, Leora wore print cotton dresses of no particular style, hair pulled back in a bun, face free of makeup. She was devoid of vanity. Without flourish or pose, she managed the family’s world. A cup of hot coffee was always on offer in her warm simple kitchen. Only minimal creature comforts in their home were deemed important, except for visiting babies. Although displays of affection were absent, except for the babies, any family member in need had her swift attention.

Leora expressed a quiet scorn for the messages feminists began to voice in the sixties, a time when I was moving into law school and away from my singular role as wife and mother. Of that she neither expressed approval or disapproval. Her son’s open admiration and support for the changing role of women, and of his wife, evoked no comment. Yet, despite this, I thought of her as having the strength of a pioneer and could readily imagine her driving a covered wagon across the plains.

Len and I and our growing brood visited his parents several times a year. Conversations around the table as the extended family gathered were about the route chosen for the drive from Cincinnati (and the planned route for return), activities planned for the day and the weather. Theirs was a like-minded, insular ultra-conservative community, which before the sands of cultural change began to shift after World War II, was exclusively white and Christian, outsiders suspect.

Throughout my own long marriage, as I came to know his mother better through Len’s stories of his childhood, and our visits over the years, she continued to hold firmly to the political and cultural values of her earlier time and place. With my New York City liberal roots, she and I, a generation apart, were as different in background and world view as two people could be, but from the day we met and ever after, she welcomed me without reservation or criticism as a loved member of the family. An extension of her love for her son?

I’ve often wondered, marveled, how this woman raised the free thinker I married, a man who reveled in and welcomed human differences and disdained exclusivity in any form. No doubt his intellectual curiosity, which perhaps drew him to become a scientist and enabled his throwing off of prejudices taught to him as a child, was a gift from his minimally schooled but intellectual father, yet I’ve always known it was at her knee that he learned kindness, which she offered to all without reservation. And from her he learned to expect great things from women, to respect and admire their strength, traits he found desirable in the woman he chose to marry.

How grateful I am.