“I told my mother-in-law, my house is your house. So she sold it.”
“Just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother- in-law to the airport.”
So, are you laughing? Those punchlines belong to legendary comedian Henny Youngman, but could have come from the mouths of his fellow travellers on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit of the 1950s and 60s.
Like brisket and potatoes, mothers-in-law were a dietary staple of postwar Jewish comedians, a dartboard against which the slings and arrows of domestic annoyance were thrown, for laughs. Mothers-in-law didn’t get a bad rep so much as a bad rap. The spectre of this woman in the lives of married couples has always loomed large, from the moment one can grasp its inevitability, or overhear adult conversations on her interference.
Even the mamaloshen is not kind to this woman. Shviger, Yiddish for mother-in-law, sounds disagreeable. Shviger also rhymes with bicker, a conflict not unfamiliar to two generations of women (mother and wife) who adore the same man.
Unlike my contemporaries, I never had the opportunity to meet my husband’s mom, who died from a pernicious, fast-moving cancer in 1974, at the age of 55.
She is known to me only through a series of black and white snapshots, some taken in her native Poland before the war, others later in Canada, where she immigrated with other Holocaust survivors. In certain photos, she resembles British-born film actress Greer Garson. My mother-in-law and millions of Europe’s Jews were in a fight for their lives when Garson won the Oscar in 1943 for her war-time film, Mrs. Miniver.
Clinical psychologist Eva Saperia, in a recent CJN column, asked the lingering question of how Holocaust survivors were able to put one foot in front of the other after living through such atrocities. Some souls were broken forever. But for most survivors, my late in-laws among them, work, marriage and raising a new generation of Jewish children were both revenge and ultimate victory over their tormentors.
It is impossible, for those of us born into North America’s peace and plenty, to wrap our minds around where and how survivors summoned strength and will to start anew. But in one of my favourite photographs of her, my mother-in-law offers a possible clue: she’s sitting at the dinner table on a passenger liner carrying her, a sister and their spouses across an ocean, to the landing docks of a new life. A smile plays faintly at the corners of her mouth, a reminder of “where there’s life, there is hope.”
With the approach of Mother’s Day, my thoughts invariably turn to what our relationship might have been had my husband’s mother lived to walk him to the huppah.
Is it wishful thinking that we’d have been good friends? Confidants and recipe swappers? Would she have approved of my youthful enthusiasm for feminism (long since discarded)? Been amused at my initial horror of sweet gefilte fish, confident that her daughter-in-law’s salt-and-pepper Litvak taste buds would eventually switch to the Polish culinary team, dosing fish and kugel with sugar?
So too I ponder whether at certain forks in the road I’d have chosen differently had my mother-in-law been a part of our lives. More than likely, her unstinting commitment to organizations like Hadassah (which elected her president of her chapter not once but twice) would have encouraged me to stay involved in Jewish communal life, rather than drive away.
Among life’s regrets, never having the opportunity to meet my mother-in-law ranks in the majors. I would have liked to thank her for so many things: the gift of her son; the affection in which she was held by family and friends; her patience and good humour; the countless times she drilled her school-age son in verbs and spelling (which led to a facility with languages).
I would have thanked her too for being a parent who understood that children want to take risks, need to chase their ambition and dreams. Despite initial misgivings, my mother-in-law went with that flow. In the final months of her life, she was able to see, and take pride in, the first major steps on her son’s career path.
Can you miss the presence of someone whom you’ve never met? I do, perhaps most keenly on Mother’s Day. In the spirit of the day to celebrate and honour mothers and shvigers, I send my mother-in-law love and gratitude.