The first time I told her that I loved her, she went silent and, finally, told me thank you. I thought that maybe she didn’t go in for that sappy stuff. Her son, my husband Douglas, told me that she was never warm and cuddly to her children, either. It was how she was raised.
Over the years, I kept telling her of my feelings, because she had accepted me so graciously as her daughter-in-law, and she had trusted me to love her son and help him live a joyful life. After about five years, one day I said to her that I loved her, and she told me she loved me, too.
Douglas was shocked by her admission of affection but also by her embracing him and me as we came into her house. From that time on, she and her husband hugged us and spoke of love for us. I called them Mom and Dad, although other in-laws called them by their first names, Helen and Malcolm.
The most beautiful birthday card that I have ever seen was one she sent to Douglas, and it said, “We have always loved you, but we haven’t always known how to show it!” It brought him to tears, and knowing that his mother and father loved him healed a lot of his hurts. He had thought that I would never get his parents to return the affectionate gestures and acknowledgments, but love is relentless and it can change hearts.
I also admired her because she was one of the most-read people I knew. She took pride in winning her local library’s reading contest every year, even into her 90s. You did not want to play Trivia or any knowledge game with her!
She passed away today on her 96th birthday. It was as if she wanted to reach that milestone, and then she was ready to leave the land of the living. She was a she-warrior, one of the women of the Greatest Generation who paved the way for the women of the Baby Boomer generation to reach the social and professional heights that she could only dream to accomplish. She went to the University of California, Berkeley, planning to be a doctor.
While there, she met her future husband. Once married, having received her “MRS,” she was expected to end her studies and concentrate on being a wife and mother, which she did. Her husband became the doctor, instead, although she was clearly the smartest of the two.
Yet, she did return to college when her youngest child started school, and she earned a Masters degree in Medical Microbiology. She was a professor for over twenty-five years, training thousands of students in hematology and biology, and she and I shared stories of being women professors.
She was a “peak bagger,” meaning a mountain climber, and she loved hiking to the top of the Sierras. Indeed, her last request is that her children spread her ashes in the Sierras, a place she loved and where she found peace. They plan to do so in the spring or summer of next year.
She was feisty, smart, frugal, and could arrange a dinner party in one afternoon. She never had a problem with me being black. Indeed, in the 1950s, she nearly started a race riot when she brought a black child to the local swimming pool in a predominantly white neighborhood, a child whom Douglas considered as his best friend.
She told me that she’d always regretted giving in to the hate. The few black residents eventually built their own pool to share. So, she was a she-warrior in many ways.
Goodbye, Mom. Thank you for loving me, accepting me, and believing in me. Thank you for all of the help you gave to Douglas and me, opening your home to us when we had no other place to go. You made it possible for me to finish my doctorate and to become a professor like you. I am forever grateful. Sayonara, my She-Warrior. You were the best mother-in-law, better than all the rest!