‘My mother-in-law was my best friend’
Nearly 30 years ago, when my husband was my still new boyfriend, he told me that I reminded him of his mother. It was quite an unsettling statement.
At that point, I hadn’t met this significant woman and wondered if she was the stereotypical matriarch.
I knew that theirs was a close relationship, and that unnerved me. And, more to the point, there was no way I aspired to be my boyfriend’s mother figure. What did that even mean? That I’d be washing his underwear in between cooking him roasts and affectionately stroking his hair?
Then, one day, I did meet her. It was a Sunday, and my boyfriend and I were walking through a park near where she lived when he declared, ‘I think we should go and visit my mum.’ We turned up on her doorstep completely unannounced, and as she opened the door and saw her son standing there, a smile as big as Africa lit up her face. Then she looked at me, and her smile spread even wider. ‘Oh, how wonderful,’ she chirruped. ‘Come in. I am so happy you’re here.’ And just like that, our friendship began.
You see, my mother-in-law – Adela – was one of the most inspiring women I have ever met. She was Spanish – Basque, in fact – a child refugee from Franco’s war who endured tragedies that most of us could not imagine. She moved to the UK in her late 20s to experience a different way of living. She married a Hungarian man, had a son and a daughter, got divorced in her 50s and remained a single parent until she died at 89 earlier this year. Even though she worked long, hard days as a secretary, I believe motherhood was, for her, her real life’s work.
As for me, once she realised I was here to stay, she sidled up to me and never shifted away. My boyfriend became my husband and we had two sons (now 18 and 14), but for many years of my marriage he often worked overseas. Adela would travel two hours every week to see me, to help with the babies and around the house, and, as she said, ‘have a natter’. She was a lifeline. I’d watch the clock, keen to see her walk through the door. She told me once that she loved me like a daughter but, even more crucial to me, I valued her as a true friend. She never judged me, supported my decisions and, if I ever complained to her about her son’s shortcomings, would laugh and say, ‘ What shall we do with him? How can we sort him out?’ No blame, no accusations – we were in it together.
Even around my own mother, Adela knew when it was time to step back. My relationship with my mum had its imperfections – she struggled with depression and could be absent and insular. Adela seemed to know instinctively when to take centre stage and support me, and when to be gracious enough to know it was my mother’s turn. Jealousy wasn’t an emotion she possessed.
As my sons grew older she’d say, ‘ You’ll have daughters-inlaw one day. You’ll need to learn to love whoever they choose so they all love you back.’ Was that her secret? Being the mother of boys, you can’t help but wonder if eventually you’ll lose each one to their wife and her extended family. But I can hear Adela laughing and saying, ‘Of course not. You work hard to be part of their life.’ Was Adela’s love calculated? Maybe a little, but she loved too much for it not to be genuine. Now my 18-year-old son has a girlfriend whom he obviously adores, I keep my smile wide and our door always open.
Earlier this year, when Adela was in a nursing home, close to the end, I sat and held her hand. It was difficult for her to talk and I had no words to explain how much I would miss her. She looked at me, eyes searching for mine, and whispered, ‘Thank you. Thank you for everything.’ No, thank you Adela, from deep inside my heart, for showing me the way.
‘If I complained about her son, she would laugh and say, “How can we sort him out?”’ Left Jenny and Adela together in London, 1999