‘My mother-in-law was my best friend’

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - CONTENTS - By Jenny Tucker

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

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