Lois is in the hospital again. She was my mother-in-law for 22 years and just turned 98-years-old. I feel bad because I should have gone to see her a few weeks ago when I had a free weekend day, but stayed home to get things done instead.
My guilt is overwhelming because she is not only sick, but in desperate need of a haircut and won’t get one unless it’s free, or cheap. (Mine are free). I’m sure she’s starting to look like George Harrison on the cover of All Things Must Pass.
She is a fine, white, Anglo Saxon of a woman, who couldn’t have been more opposite my mom, but that’s always been part of her stoic, penny-pinching charm.
Coming from such different backgrounds, I wondered if we would click. The first time I met her she was laughing over a funny greeting card, something my mom hardly ever did because of the language barrier, and I thought, “She’s cool.” She loved traveling and showed me photos of Ireland, where she’d just traveled. She had a razor sharp memory, a great sense of humor, and still remembers names better than I ever will.
However, Lois’ idea of a meal took years to get used to. While my family regularly enjoyed enough food to feed an entire suburb, this woman could stretch a thin casserole, a small salad and one artichoke into a dinner she was convinced would feed six people.
The casserole, salad and one-artichoke extravaganza left me stunned. I called my mom afterward and told her how we passed the artichoke around and everyone took a few leaves. My Mom, who never made less than a dozen or more artichokes for a meal, kept asking over and over again, “You meanna alla yunz hadda wazza da one ardachoke? Anna you passed it around a?” After I reassured her for the 5th time that I wasn’t kidding, she said, “Dattsa som ting!”
Lois never liked cooking and only did it to survive. Plus, entertaining takes money, which she was loathe to spend. She blamed it on her Scotch-Irish blood, and regularly scolded us if we ever showed up with an empty bag from Burger King, or coffee cups from Starbucks.
But she had to be thrifty. Lois was in her early 50’s when her husband came home from work one day and had a nervous breakdown after losing his job. He was institutionalized for two years, so she took a secretarial job to make ends meet. She was thrilled she found a job making enough to support her family. She seemed to thrive on seeing how little she could get by on — maybe a remnant of living through the Great Depression. She had that “Greatest Generation,” mentality that whatever life handed you, you just dealt with it and moved on.
It served her well because Lolo had plenty of heartbreak. When her first son was born, in the late ’40s, the forceps delivery left him severely mentally retarded. He was seven-years-old, when Lois found herself with an active infant and a three year-old, and had to make the gut-wrenching decision to have her oldest son institutionalized.
Lois, her husband, and their two kids drove the three hours to see him – first every week, then every month for years. As she got older she couldn’t go as often, so sometimes we’d take her.
I saw how tenderly she looked at her graying, wheelchair-bound son, as she patted his arm or smoothed his hair. He could only sit there, peeking out at us from under shaggy eyebrows, possibly wondering who we were.
The pain and sadness on her face was visible. But she was never tearful, just relentlessly practical and grateful. She’d say, “They take such good care of him here, we could never have done as well at home.” At Christmas, she sent See’s Candy for the caretakers, and boxes of Thrift shop finds for all the kids in the institution.
A good thrift store was heaven for Lois. When we were first married, she’d go thrifting, see things that looked like a bargain for a quarter or fifty cents, and buy them for us. She had a pretty good eye and came up with some great outfits, and some serious stinkers. If I didn’t take everything, she’d look at me and say, “Really, you don’t want this? Look, it’s Ralph Lauren!” So I learned to take them all and “re-gift” what I didn’t want to the thrift store nearest me. My step-son, Brandon still loves a good thrift store because of her.
At Christmas, when other grandparents spoil their grandchildren with lots of expensive gifts, Lois would send us a check for each of the kids. Then wrap small gifts, like a can of Spam or pineapple, along with some small toy, and put them in the kids stockings. We always made them smile and say thank you, even though they were convinced they were horribly deprived. It was a nice opportunity to teach my kids that not everyone is rich. Some people give what they can, so you have to appreciate the thoughtfulness.
When the packages were unwrapped, she would take back any salvageable wrapping and ribbon and use it again. If we teased her about it, she’d say, “You kids waste too much.” Now I find myself doing the same thing.
Coupons were a special treasure for Lois. She clipped them and used them any time she shopped. We were at a grocery store when she was in her early 90s and the clerk had missed one coupon, so Lois corrected her on the amount that was due. The girl kind of rolled her eyes, assuming this old lady was wrong, but Lois was relentless and when the girl went back and checked, she realized she’d been incorrect. The girl, apologized and told Lois she was really sharp. Lois replied, “I have to be.”
Yet, Lois never failed to generously help her sons when they needed it. Whatever she didn’t spend on herself, she would give, if it helped them and their families.
She still loves to talk, and if you get her going on something from her childhood, she’ll tell you every detail, although she sometimes mispronounces words, or uses them incorrectly. Once, we told her we were stopping at Starbucks for a treat, and asked if she wanted anything. She said, “Yeah, I’d like a Chihuahua.” The kids and I were in hysterics in the backseat over her confusing a cappuccino with a chihuahua, but she took it in stride, laughing at her own mistake.
Lois isn’t the huggy, kissy type my mom was. She tolerates hugs and blows air kisses as you say hello or goodbye and would rather talk to you about her family’s genealogy than deal with feelings. And now that she’s older, she hardly reads or watches TV anymore. But as she quietly lives out her remaining years, I hope she’s comfortable, happy, and knows that someone noticed and appreciated her sacrifices over the years. I learned, not only to love Lois, but to respect her for courageously doing what she had to do.
I just hope she gets better soon, so I can give her that damned haircut.