“Why do you want to marry my son?” she asked.
Even over the hiss of the espresso machines in the coffee shop, I could hear her loud and clear. In her tone, I heard the following: that I wasn’t good enough for her son, that I wasn’t Jewish, that I wasn’t welcome, that I was an intruder. There wasn’t enough time to continue the list of things her tone could mean before I had to respond to her question.
I held my shoulders square and said, “He asked me to marry HIM,” with the rash temper of who I was when I was twenty-two. I resented the tone of her voice and that she questioned me, when it was she who had to accept me into her family. However, over the course of the ensuing discussion, I agreed to convert to Orthodox Judaism, no small concession, but one I understood was important to her and to our union. My husband had not asked me to convert, but it was the beginning of my understanding of what marriage meant.
I was beginning to understand that marriage now included our families. And thus began my relationship with my mother-in-law, who became one of the greatest influences in my life; there are times while peeling a potato or cooking food, or supporting friends that I pause, feeling the wind blown out of my body and realize, “This is her.”
I remember how, on our second Seder dinner together almost fifteen years ago, she handed me a potato to peel and chop. “Do you have a vegetable peeler,” I asked.
An expert cook, her lips curled into something not-quite-a-smile that I came to know as deep amusement. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, and a panic swept through me, wanting to be helpful, wanting approval, but knowing that somehow I was letting her down. I remember keeping my temper in check and adding, “I don’t know how to peel without a vegetable peeler.”
She waved over her sister, my husband’s aunt, and started chuckling, speaking in Hebrew. It was obvious she was summarizing my predicament. Her sister smiled and patted my shoulder. I felt humiliated.
But then—she did something unexpected: she showed me how to peel a potato with a knife, the blade going over the skin at a perpendicular angle to her thumb. I had watched my mother do the same thing, and had always been in awe at how she had never ended up thumb-less, and again I felt the same. My mother-in-law peeled slowly, showing me the mechanics of how to peel, adding, “This is how…” and “you will learn…” Then, she handed me an old vegetable peeler. “Use whichever is comfortable to you.”
I peeled that potato with the vegetable peeler, and chopped with awkward earnestness, like Jacques Pepin’s daughter, Claudine Pepin.
When I finally braved peeling a potato and then an apple, years and years later, I thought of that moment, feeling victorious. I still remember that day, every time I peel a potato or an apple, the skin coming down in one long curly strip. I think of her every time I cook a family recipe, of which I know many; it wasn’t long after the potato peeling incident that I asked her to teach me how to cook all my husband’s favorite foods. I can hear her voice directing me through all the steps, as if it were my very first time cooking the dish, even if it’s now the hundredth.
We bonded through cooking. She hated the term “foodie” even though she was one, to the core. She took me to Surfas, the cooking supply store in Los Angeles, showing me bags of lavender and utensils that looked like torture instruments, ones I later came to ooh and ahh over when I became a good cook, just like her. We got up early and went to the farmers’ market, where I learned how to pick vegetables, and learned what fennel was.
I eventually went to go work for her family business; she and I had become fast friends, developing inside jokes that had my husband rolling his eyes—it made sense to work for her. We had “clicked.”
It wasn’t an easy job. She was a demanding boss, one that oftentimes contrasted with who she was as a tender and protective mother, and at times I was shocked and hurt and offended by her behavior at work. But still, there were things I learned from her in that tough role. There was one day, after a doctor screamed at me for half an hour straight, that she found me in an empty exam room, bawling my eyes out. I had held my tears back during the tirade, but afterwards, I felt all of five years old. I remember she told me to scream at him back, to which I responded, “That’s not nice. Why should I be as mean as him?”
I will never forget what she told me in response. In an ideal world, she told me, a win/win situation is best. But, she added, “If it is a choice between him being happy and you being happy, let the happy one be YOU.” She said it in her Israeli Hebrew accented English, which to this day, reminds me of a happy yowling feline. I repeat it to myself when in situations I must fight, and I repeat it to friends who are in situations where they must fight. I quote her all the time during adversarial situations, when I am the underdog.
And speaking of underdogs—she taught me how to fight. She taught me to fight well, because she herself was a fighter. She had been an underdog almost her whole life, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a scrappy rebellious girl.
And that—that is how it ended. We got into a fight. Because of work. Between her temper and mine, her stubbornness and mine, and the lessons we learned from each other on keeping the upperhand, we didn’t speak for three years. I heard later that she was mustering up the strength to talk to me again, broker peace. I was beginning to regret the fight; I would have gone to her if there had been a window, and if she had been braver than I was and come to me, I would have been grateful.
But that never happened. Because she died. She died suddenly, in a car accident. My last words to her were, “I don’t want to speak to you again.” I didn’t mean it. I thought, in my typical dramatic style, that there would be resolution, even if years later. There was none, and I learned the awful lesson that time is not a given.
Dear G*d, dear Death, dear Time, dear Fate, I want my mother-in-law back.