The night before the Golden Wedding party, I am fighting a lump in my throat as I look through the pictures of my mother-in-law as a girl, a bride, a young mother. These are pictures of someone with her life ahead of her, someone still innocent of loss and pain. This is a girl who hasn’t yet watched parents, sister, friends, die; a bride who doesn’t know her honeymoon trip will be the last time she travels abroad with her husband. A mother who has not yet surrendered her beloved sons, one by one, to the world and the claims of younger, less devoted women. She was so carefree, so eager for life, and she was pretty – and I am ashamed to be surprised. I never saw either vanity or ambition in her, and I assumed she’d never had reason.
Downstairs, a girl’s voice lifts and trills, songs from the eighties, lyrics I find myself mouthing. She and my boy are making fairy cakes in the kitchen, finding some ease with each other before they retire to the little sofa in the study. Later I will knock on the door with cocoa and find them sprawled together, arms and legs entwined, giggling at ‘Family Feud,’ and I am taken aback, and relieved, and only a little sad. It has been years since he has offered me a hug or accepted one without stiffness, but now I see that the gift of physical intimacy is not lost to him, only to us.
This is what it must have been like for my mother-in-law, I realise. Someone in your kitchen, a nervous girl hiding behind bold glasses and a confident laugh, a proprietary claim on the body that for a long time was almost an extension of your own: the hands you’d held and squeezed for reassurance (yours and his), the fingernails trimmed while he slept. The cheeks you stroked, their plump rose petal softness hard-boned now and sandpapery. The knees you salved and kissed better; the hair you hacked with dressmaking scissors because he couldn’t sit still for the barber.
The girl in the kitchen, or whoever comes after her, won’t find any photos of me like these ones of my mother-in-law. No pretty poses in a swimsuit, no formal portraits, no candid newlywed delight. Nothing of youthful beauty to surprise on the occasion of my 50th wedding anniversary, or my eightieth birthday, or whatever it might be. I have always been the one behind the camera, and the few pictures of me they’ll be able to find are self-conscious and awkward. I am not sure if this makes me glad or sorry.
I have not been generous, I realise. A mother made me the gift of her son and never cried, or complained, or used guilt to remind me that he was hers first. I want to believe I will be this sort of mother-in-law when the time comes – generous, grateful, accommodating – though I know I am more likely to be the other kind: needy, jealous, miserable. I can put my faith in karma in the meantime, and be a better daughter-in-law. I can remind her son to call her more often, plan more frequent visits. And I can smile as my tall son takes his girl’s hand; and close my eyes when my small one flings his arms around me for the mother’s hugs he still consumes like air.