When I met her, she was on her hands and knees planting tulip bulbs around the patio in the backyard while Pepper, the Corgi, made laps around the base of the biggest pine tree in the yard in an apparent effort to build a moat or dig the tree up. We’re not sure which.
I met her 43 years ago, long before I got the memo saying Mothers of the Groom were to wear beige and keep. their. mouths. shut. Not knowing any better, I invited her to join my mother and me and go shopping for my wedding dress, among other things.
We took sewing classes together. We cooked together. We had long talks.
She put mustard on grilled cheese sandwiches.
Ask me how I found out.
She was beautiful in the way young women were beautiful in the 1940s. Mr. Chambers told me that had it not been for the war, he probably wouldn’t have married her. “Well, you would have been a damn fool,” I assured him.
They were married on October 2, 1942 by an Army Chaplain in Hobe Sound, Florida. The bride wore a brownish dress with a matching hat that had a veil that tickled her nose. How do I know? I asked her.
When I asked her about the most adventurous thing that happened to her while traveling, she didn’t tell me about dressing up and winning the prize for her
obviously convincing portrayal of a drunken hag on the cruise ship, she told me about how she played gin rummy with a sergeant all the way down to Bermuda where her new husband was stationed in World War II. Her first job as a married woman was as a court martial secretary, and who was there on her first day on the job but the sergeant she’d played so many hands of gin rummy with. “He was a bigamist,” she told me. “He had THREE wives.”
She could be funny – like the time she sent me a pair of clear plastic salad tongs for Christmas with a note that said “Try these with spaghetti.” Sometimes – when I disappointed her, for example – she wasn’t particularly funny.
“How’d you get along with your mother?” I once asked her.
“OK,” was all she said.
“How’d you get along with your daddy?”
After a morning of taking her mother to the doctor or to get groceries or just out for lunch, Mrs. C would call me: “Hello?” I’d answer, not knowing who was on the other end of the line because those were the days before caller i.d. (or even answering machines, for that matter).
“If I EVER get like my mother,” she’d say skipping the greeting and going straight to the point, “kick me.”
(Too many times to count, I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying “Bend over” cause let me tell you: she was the spittin’ image of her mother, though she fancied herself to be just like the daddy she adored.)
The first house we bought was right down the road from them, and because she liked to drop by during the day to take her friends on a tour (she liked what we did with the place, and she specially liked that I made the macrame headboard just like the one in the picture she tore out of a magazine for me) or to drop off two pies (a cherry pie for me and a strawberry pie for The Engineer – we could eat them back then without consequence), we gave her her own key to the place. She sewed the curtains for the front window . . . and she never quite forgave me for agreeing to leave them when we sold the house. I wish I had them right about now – I really do – but the buyers wanted the curtains, and we were young with many curtains yet to come, so those curtains stayed with the house.
Years later, we bought a house in a new subdivision, and while the in-laws were out having a look, they spied a house one street over that captured their interest. Because they had long lived on the same street and because they lived in a beautiful house, she invited me to lunch to ask what I thought about them buying that house and moving there. Without a moment’s hesitation, I told her to buy it, and when she asked me why, I told her it was on a golf course, and I knew – I just knew – she’d enjoy playing golf.
They did move, and she did learn to play and enjoy golf, and as a bonus that I never even considered, when Alison was born, Mrs. C. was right around the corner and ready to help. I don’t know what on earth I would’ve done without her. I really don’t.
When we were first married, I watched Mrs. C. closely, and not just because watching people closely is my favorite kind of entertainment. I watched to see how she related to Nancy and Mr. C. and her boys. I watched their family communication model, the family dynamics. I took in how they related to each other. She taught me a lot without knowing it. A lot, I tell you.
I wish she’d never started smoking, but if that is too much to ask, I wish she’d been able to stop smoking. I have things I long to ask her, you know. Things I long to talk about. Things I long to apologize for. Mostly I want to thank her (again) for raising the man I married.
Today is not just Groundhog Day, it’s Mary Chambers’ – my mother-in-love’s – birthday.