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Happy Mother’s Day To the Mother-in-Law I Never Knew

Mela Mietkiewicz, the mother-in-law of the author // Courtesy of Dorothy Lipovenko

At the top of a staircase, a pious Jewish family in pre-war Europe gazes out from a series of framed photos. A boy of bar-mitzvah age stands with two older sisters, faces too young to be so serious. Seated between their parents is another sibling of 11 or 12, sporting a chic bob with full bangs, her dress finessed with a cowl neckline and jaunty bow, fingers splayed on a book open on her lap: Czestochowa, Poland’s “it” girl.

She’s the classmate everyone wants as a friend, and many years later, the woman voted in not once, but an unprecedented twice as president of her Hadassah chapter. Indeed, had she lived to walk her eldest son to the wedding canopy, she would have been not only my friend, she would have been my mother-in-law.

Let’s face it: mothers-in-law have gotten a bad rap. Think of the mid-century stereotype, and what comes to mind is the only civilian capable, with a single phone call or visit, of raising the military’s Defcon alert. And that’s before the Borscht Belt comedians got through with her.

Even Yiddish is unkind to this woman: shviger (mother-in-law) and shnur (daughter-in-law) sound more like a vaudeville act than two women yoked by their love of the same man.

Fast-forward to the post-’60s era and the mother-in-law as a source of jokes or domestic high-jump evolved: the women they intimidated would themselves eventually face an altogether different species of daughter-in-law: the career-driven baby boomer. We kept our own names and bank accounts. The older generation didn’t quite know what to make of it, or for that matter, their sons changing diapers at 2:00 a.m.

This Mother’s Day, as always, I will feel the regret of never having met my husband’s mother. She is known to me only from pictures (a lovely Greer Garson look-alike in a passport photo) and from memories of those who circled in her orbit as a wife, mother, sister, friend. One of her contemporaries once exclaimed, on meeting me for the first time: “You are Mela’s daughter-in-law?” It was not a question so much as a declaration of the honor that was mine.

The irony is not lost on me that I am now older than my mother-in-law was at the time of her death from pancreatic cancer in 1974, just when she was on the cusp of the big payoff that comes to mothers of a certain age: graduations, weddings, grandchildren. It has always seemed particularly cruel that she survived the Holocaust, only to have had such a miserable end. When she was initially diagnosed, her son and I had just started dating; lest it seem an admission that her time was short, he was reluctant to introduce me at home.

A wise decision, as we soon parted company until, as they say in the movies, we “collided like two taxis on Broadway” in a chance encounter. (That’s Thelma Ritter telling Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” when two people are right for each other: taxis colliding.)

The loss of a mother is hard at any time, perhaps more so before she’s had the chance to see what a son has made of himself. When my husband speaks of her, it’s as much about memories of her fruity JELL-O molds and helping her with Hadassah speeches as it is about her influential love of language and literature. His gratitude runs deep to this parent who ran interference when father and son clashed over career paths.

The gratitude is mine, too: had she not lobbied successfully on that front, her son and I (cub reporters on competing newspapers) might never have met.

But doubt occasionally snags like a fingernail on a sweater: would she have approved of me, a feminist and rock ’n roll enthusiast? Not exactly prize daughter-in-law material. But I’d like to think she would have given me every chance to make good, that we’d have bonded over blintz recipes, that her finer graces would have sanded down my rougher edges. And when we shopped together, I’d finally unravel a longstanding mystery: how an adolescent girl, raised in such a religious home in a Polish town, acquired a taste for smart cloches and sailor dresses.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mela.

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