I bid au revoir to ma belle mere yesterday. I admit, it has taken ten years for me not to feel anxious before her arrival or have a pounding headache at her departure.
Non, non, non! I know what you are thinking.
My nervous stomach and headache are not because we do not get along.
Mais non! Au contraire.
I very much enjoy my time with Arlette (“Lettie”). It is the language barrier which to date has set my heart racing in anticipation of her arrival, and sent extra blood pumping to my brain during her stay.
|Lettie and Chef, Le Mans, 2005|
When I first met my future belle mere, she managed about five words in English and my French was limited to a 14-year old grade school lesson plan. I replayed mom’s advice over in my head,
Honey, just smile and look pretty. Say ‘merci’ alot.
Don’t drink too much wine… She’ll love you!
In that initial introduction, Lettie stated she was too old to learn English and that I had to parler francais, particularly if we planned to one day have a family. I ignored mom’s echoing voice and told Chef to refill my glass of wine. Mon Dieu! I had known her for five minutes and her son for five months.
Conveniently, Chef seems to work the majority of his mother’s visits and, when around, is not the most patient translator. As I enjoy a good girly chat, I have worked hard at learning French to prevent us sipping Champagne in silence. When we do get lost in translation, we turn to improvised sign language and keep our tight tongues relaxed with glasses of wine. I can affirm, both work wonders.
Wanting to raise our daughter to be bi-lingual has been a great motivator to keep learning French. I have noticed my ears now decipher the individual words sung in endlessly strung verses of French children’s CDs. I can follow le journal on television, and take delight in laughing at an understood punch line.
|Salut a la petite souris. Lettie and Ouisie, May 2013|
During this visit, when not trying to wear Ouisie out at the playground or an amusement park, I enjoyed gardening and sprucing up the cottage with Lettie. I learned a lot about the importance of gardening, namely pruning, but enjoyed learning more about ma belle mere.
This past February she turned 70. She loves playing board games, but struggles not winning the aging one. Through our choppy conversations about family and raising children, I realised it is not her age that bothers her, but rather the misguided paths and wrong decisions from early in life she wishes she could redo. She explained,
Si je pouvais, je recommencer dès ma naissance.
|Lettie & Eloise, 1st introduction, February 2011|
Where she was told the world was her hometown, the door to my world was propped open to freely venture out and explore.
Her first marriage provided an escape from an overbearing mother, but ended up being another mousetrap.
M is for Motherhood.
A is for Abuse.
D is for Divorce.
By 25, Lettie was a mother of two. By 35, she was a single working mother with no family support.
|Three generations. Summer holiday with Lettie and cousin ‘Bo Bo’ – Normandy, France, 2012|
But where her decisions fell short, Lettie learned to stand taller and got stronger. Though money was tight, she wanted her children to explore, learn, and discover. Chef credits his successful culinary career, spanning over thirty years, to his mother who secured his first apprenticeship.
Though she never travelled as a youth, in recent years she has filled her passport with stamps to include Istanbul, Morocco, and Nepal. She is a ferocious reader and an avid bridge player. She loves modern art, ballet, and classical music. The door to her world has finally been open and she cannot get enough.
Where my husband has little memory of his grandparents, Lettie ensures our daughter knows how much she is adored through cards, gifts, phone calls and visits. And though Ouisie’s only cousin is twelve years her senior, Lettie plans holidays for them to spend time together.
I still do not understand everything my mother-in-law says. But this past weekend I understood enough to realise how family matters can tear generations apart, but how one person can choose to put matter back in family.
Lettie is a woman of character, resilience, poise and, above all else, total adoration for her children and grandchildren.
Every night, Ouisie asks me to sing the familiar spiritual hymn “He’s got the whole world in His hands”. We have created new verses, and she does not let me stop singing until we have ensured God is holding every family member, friend, and farm animal in His hands. How lucky for our daughter to know the love of family and already have the capacity to share it with others.
This Sunday is Mother’s Day in France. I thank Lettie for being ma belle mere. My gift to her is the promise to ensure family always matters to Ouisie.
We can only write a first draft in our life’s story. In my book, the main characters are my family. While I do not know when or how my story will end, I hope the last line reads:
She lived happily ever after.