As Much As Anyone Who Wasn’t Blood

My mother-in-law died Easter morning. My husband had gone across the street to ask her when she wanted to come over for dinner; we had just bought some aids she had long resisted – believing they were a sign of dependence she wasn’t quite ready to accept. But by now she was blind and a new wheel chair, for instance, would make crossing the street safer and faster than with her halting steps which had slowed during the last year. She would have been 91 in a couple of months; she had held her great grandson in her arms. She had a quiet life – one of those people who defined herself as much by what she wouldn’t do as by what she did. But it was, nonetheless, full with a richness of purpose and accomplishment.

We were never close. While this says much about my many failings of intimacy and love, it is also not surprising considering the intensity of her bond with my husband. An only son, he was raised on a farm by a mother who never learned to drive. She often spoke of her husband with reverence, but she wasn’t the only one; when a good man dies at 47 with a 16-year-old son, we tend to remember him with a sense of poignancy. Still, he must have been a good man – in many senses of the word. Two grown men have separately told me that he made a huge difference in their youths – and both have used similar descriptions. They saw the farm as a refuge; my husband’s father showed them a patient, gentle but manly love; indeed, one said that love seemed to permeate the place when my husband’s father was there. She took his loss hard, but defined a path of restraint and quiet that suited her in the forty-six years she had left. She was Catholic, saying once if she hadn’t met Johnnie she’d have chosen the life of a nun. While she felt the Matcek life force, I suspect to some extent she meant it. Hers might be an idle whim but she was seldom idle and even more seldom whimsical.

My older daughters came back for the funeral and stayed a week. The three girls went through pictures, found piles of their school drawings and their father’s old report cards. I had worked, started a business, later commuted to a teaching job. She took care of them, cooked their meals, was there when school was out. They had care that saw them as the center of the world, but also firmly set limits. She had strong ideas: some were about virtue (she hated dishonesty more than anyone I’ve ever known) and some were preferences (she believed playing the piano was the greatest skill, which forged a powerful link with one granddaughter, but her inability to appreciate the skills of the other two could hurt). And, of course, her choices were almost always different from mine. We didn’t speak of it, but the Mommy wars was always an undercurrent.

In their sorting, the girls found a picture they may have seen before, but I hadn’t. My husband’s mother was framed with one of those bouncy, mid-length hair styles and his father was in uniform, they seem to be laughing. Their look is straight on – a stance remarkably representative of the forties, as if in the first reel of one of those old films noir. His father has that jaunty look, his army cap at an angle and his arm around her; she is lovely and looking out with a certain confidence; he looks young but also like a man. Their lives were neither as idyllic as that first reel nor as cynical as the last; theirs was the steady, hard work of a farm. Immersed in the Czech-American culture of central Texas, they met at a barn dance. Neither had much formal schooling. Both were, however, amazingly competent, with taste spare and graceful. We have now inherited the table, chairs, corner china closet Johnnie made. Their styles meshed well: lines simple, legs gracefully turned, the wood sturdy – heavy and built to last. He bought two chairs to use as models – the rest he did himself. He supplemented their income by trapping, they raised tomatoes and cattle; he worked in a local factory. Her life after his death embodied the strength and innovation of the small farmer but applied to the domestic, her cooking her pride and it was simple, sturdy, delicious.

By her generation the culture was as much Texan as Czech, but both strands were woven into music and cooking. In the early seventies, a friend, unable to return to Prague and cut off from his mother, had tears in his eyes as my mother-in-law cut a section of poppy seed roll for him and warmed it. Shy before visiting scholars, forced to speak in the Czech of her youth, she would slowly become more talkative. In the late nineties she had a staph infection that kept her in the ICU for weeks. Under heavy medication she started hallucinating – she wanted to bake for her brother. She had to, she told the nurse, get out of bed and into that kitchen. And piano music soothed her – listening to it in the hospital, she’d tap her feet. As blindness set in, she was, for the first time, willing to acknowledge the local baker’s kolaches weren’t all that bad; she’d insist on giving my husband money to get a couple dozen for any festive occasion. And radio – both talk radio and music – took on a greater importance.

Her four younger brothers and three older sisters have reproduced; their children have reproduced and now their children. I joke about the Matcek life force, but it isn’t a joke. It’s real. I suspect it was one of the reasons my mother-in-law fell in love with the kind of man who not only loved his son, but his son’s friends. My husband’s almost thirty first cousins have now reproduced so my children’s second cousins are everywhere. My mother-in-law had taken care of her brother’s grandsons in her home in their early years and my husband wanted both as pall bearers. Lance was going to be represented by his father, since all assumed it would be hard to travel across the state mid-week. But he cleared his schedule and came – he said, fondly, that many of his earliest memories were of my mother-in-law. He’d stood beside the grave, talking with his cousin – remembering those years and how strong her presence had been.

My daughter asked me after the funeral if I’d spoken to Lance. I’d replied yes, but not long. My daughter said his wife, another dentist, had their third child a couple of weeks ago. They must be quite close paced: they’d put off having their children until their professional lives were settled but now, apparently, had thrown themselves into the family project. It is a family trait, among the Matceks – children and music. My mother-in-law’s younger brother, now in his mid seventies, played last weekend. His voice remains melodious. He was accompanied by his son, who is pretty much an Austin person: plays in more than one band, has a cult following for his cynical (often sacrilegious) humor and depressing indy sound. The father tends toward the softer, even sentimental, side of country – John Denver and Glenn Campbell. With affection and respect, the thin, charismatic son backed up his father through two sets. It was a quarter mile from my mother-in-law’s old farm, in an unincorporated community; the manager sold brisket and a dozen older couples sat around. Sophie’s brother had worked his way through college then up the bureaucratic ladder of the state employment commission. Retired, he returned to the old family plot to build a house. In his thirties, the son drifts. Their lives differ. Of course, the father loves his son; what strikes me, watching them, isn’t just that they love one another. It is that each enjoys the other. Those were my mother-in-law’s people; frankly, I hadn’t realized such quiet was possible. My parents had many virtues but gentleness and certainly acceptance weren’t their goals. My husband’s family seems to come naturally to what for many parents requires the greatest restraint of all: expecting our children to be like us. They accept the other – well, as long as they play music and eat kolaches. In general, of course, what they accept is blood.

Writing thank yous, my girls remarked on flowers from a friend of our oldest daughter. Both moved across the country but ended up in the same town, resolved old differences. In fact, the friend had taken care of my grandson as his parents prepared for the trip. As another daughter said, their grandmother had liked that girl “as much as she ever did anyone who wasn’t blood.” While my mother-in-law led a cloistered life, her family is full of extroverted, active joiners. But, in the end, it is still blood – back (her parents’ pictures have moved from her walls to our mantle), beside (her remaining brothers and sisters the source of daily communication, worry and laughter), and, finally, down – her nephews and nieces. Most of all, of course, her passions were for her child, grandchildren, great grandchild.

My mother-in-law was not especially fecund, but her way of looking at the world was something she passed on to those boys as well as her son. She modeled old fashioned traditions; she valued child raising highly – taking it very seriously. Nature, nurture – whatever: that family enlarges rather than narrows in each generation. Among my children’s cousins were homecoming queens and kickers, engineers and academics, people with careers in the military, in cinema, in business. Different blood enters the family – German, Scots, Irish, of course, but now Korean and Vietnamese. But the cousins don’t forget they share blood. It isn’t always easy to marry into such tight blood bonds – I doubt my mother-in-law ever accepted me except as conduit for those grandchildren. It took her years to accept the gracious and loving second wife of one of her brothers (even though it was a matter of widow and widower). But she knew what she was here for – to raise children. My husband says he found post-modernism silly because he grew up on a farm; for the same reason, he likes “eco-criticism.” But I’m not so sure it wasn’t because he could see its power when, reading a book, he would look up and see his mother in the kitchen. She was real.

She told me once that she saw her task as molding children of a certain age. And that she did. She wasn’t especially fond of infants – she didn’t sentimentalize or revel in the physicality of those first months. Nor was she much interested in their choices as they entered life outside the home – in some ways, she never did go into that world herself. My husband once pointed out when I complained she didn’t appreciate what I’d done (it was years before she understood my husband and I had the same degree, for instance) that she had little idea of what he did. Well, that might well be true – she was impatient with his Czech scholarship and had even less interest in the Victorian sages. I pointed out, however, that she assumed whatever he (and “blood” in general) did was right – well done – even if she had little curiosity what it actually was.

She valued quiet voices and controlled behavior, internalizing and disciplining; she believed, in short, in civilization. (Is it surprising her son would find the Victorians, with their powerful sense of duty, so beguiling?) She was minimally interested in the naval-gazing self-consciousness of modernism, but she was always aware of her – and our – uniqueness, our separateness. And restraint, always restraint. Within the last year I heard her criticize my husband’s harsh tone. I stared in disbelief – I wasn’t sure which words had upset her – they always seemed soft to me. (He doesn’t have much control when faced with “some assembly required” – but that’s another subject for another time.) Her standards for civil behavior were remarkably high. Forty years later I’m surprised to live in a house where loud and even contentious voices, slammed doors and regular tears aren’t a part of daily life. (Of course, my memories of my family are also conditioned by the fact I left in teenage years – when the most restrained are likely to raise their voices and tears are often close.) A friend of my youngest daughter said my husband always uses his “quiet voice” – unlike her father, she implied. It’s the nature of his people, but he’d also been pressured. He didn’t get a dispensation at home – indeed, it was restraint at home that interested my mother-in-law.

She hated promises not kept and pretenses. She had little interest in speculation; she wasn’t a gossip. She was almost unable to say Bill Clinton’s name by the time he finally left office. (As so often, I’ve arrived at a different understanding but in the end see the rightness in what I once thought was her eccentricity.) She seldom complained of behavior in terms of what was appropriate “in public” – since it was the home that interested her, she had little use for that distinction. She expected consistency; I doubt she would have put it this way, but what she expected was integrity. She cultivated dedication – he has cousins, too, whose parents had grade school educations and who became scholars. Most follow paths different from their parents. But alienation is rare: all appear at holidays, hover over the piano, munch in the kitchen.

The restraints of civilization and the power of the life force, restraining our wills and acting out our passions sometimes seem – sometimes are – at odds. The play of ideas, joy in words – that was my parents’ gift. I often felt its absence; I often felt constrained. Indeed, my parents were restless and my husband’s people are not. I wonder if that isn’t, in part, the difference between a family obsessed with words and another obsessed with notes. Some of my children – indeed my husband – might have profited by more spontaneity, unguarded moments. Such restraint was not my family’s way. It wasn’t always easy for my children and often I felt a stranger in my own home. But I am in my mother-in-law’s debt for much I like about my life: joy in the now, in the daily, in dinner on the table and a tune on the piano. In fact, I’m not sure “joy” was a very strong concept in our home – it always seemed naïve or a fleeting foreshadow of tragedy to come. Joy was always mediated by words. But my husband’s family shows me it can be immediate and real. And so, my respect for his mother and the family of which she was so representative is large. She was the force that civilized my husband and my daughters – and, looking at them, I can’t but be grateful to her.

6 thoughts on “As Much As Anyone Who Wasn’t Blood”

  1. I am the only child of a single mother, and raised very much by my grandmother when I was in grade school. While my gramma was very different from your mother-in-law—loud, emotional, boisterous—she was also very much the same in many of the bedrock values you describe here.

    A beautiful eulogy. Thank you.

  2. Wonderfully balanced rhetorically, wonderfully affectionate emotionally. If it weren’t so unfashionable, I’d wonder if Plutarch is an influence. Have you read Lewis’s autobiography, “Surprised by Joy”? His mother’s people went straight for happiness, too.

  3. One of the many delightful things about marriage is the way it yokes differing family traditions and character types. It seems so natural to speak of “my mother’s people” and “my father’s people” and speculate about what parts of each of those peoples made its way into the person you yourself became. We humans are myth-makers and depicters of character. Our best material comes from our families.

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