I thought of her today, as I do on her birthday.

My mother-in-law was a beautiful woman. Not in the classic sense perhaps, but within. Rigid standards, fierce loyalties, and her frown on my zest for nonsense could divide us, but her intense love of family cemented my love for this woman.

It was July, ’72…

Stuart and Bobby, living in a house off Northern Boulevard had tired of both selling Highlights and the thrill of Long Island. Fresh from the Army, I scooped up their still-ripe leads, elated to jumpstart my relationship with Lil’s daughter. It was to be an easy summer, as working part-time at best, I eased back into my relationship with the daughter and civilian life as well. I could sell for my Dad that fall, (or so I thought), get married that winter, and while not the most ambitious guy around, I was happy and I knew it.

With that as a backdrop they dragged me to Bograd’s, the Mantel & Goetz of New Jersey, down in Riverdale one day…Lil, The Jersey Girl and me…looking at furniture. The wedding was months away, and I suppose it was the kind of thing I was supposed to care about. (What did Bogarts, however, know from furnishings? At 20 East 14th in Columbus I’d slept on four stacked mattresses and heck: our father’s idea of woodwork was the bat rack from the ’62 Little League White Sox).

“This young man is going to be my son-in-law”, she beamed to the salesman. “And this is my daughter. They met at Ohio State.”
“Wonderful,” he said….or something like that….”What do you do back home?”
“I sell magazines door-to-door”.’’

Talk about awkward moments. The pale of her face told the story. (I’d seen warmer looks on my drill sergeant). “He’s waiting to hear from law schools,” she added. (“But I don’t want to go to camp,” I was thinking).

She wanted what she thought was more for her daughter, and for me. Eight years my mother’s senior, while Elaine lived with depression, Lil Nathan Selzer’d lived  THE Depression.

“Count your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves,” she would say. (She was right—all along—and if we’d heeded her then I’d be retired today).

She’d give me that look— that pause that said “Some day you’ll see”, and she smiled—almost accepting the inevitability that her kids (she considered me one) would, as she perhaps had, learn from their own mistakes. For a quarter century this strong, intelligent woman stood integral to my life. There were highs and there were lows. Not once though, did she ever say “I told you so.”

She was better than that.

Ah, but I was too young to listen — too young to “get” her.

How I’d laugh, egging my father-in-law on when he’d tip-toe to IHOP for bacon and eggs. It frustrated her—his eating traif outside the house — and me, always laughing.   I was wrong (I would learn), and today, as my kids taste pork, I don’t think it cute.  At all.

Oh,  she was funny too, but didn’t know it. (Not funny in a neurotic Aunt Helen way, mind you,  Not at all. She was funny in an idiosyncratic way).

“Jacqueline,” she’d ask as her younger daughter’d walk in the door, “Why does your friend Jessica have to call you every night at this time?”

…or to another child:

“Why does your friend Gail need so many sweaters?”

(In both cases I’d agree with her—always—stirring the pot… a la Fenton).

And yet there were lessons to be learned, if only I’d listened—

We’d play pinochle after dinner—Ben, The Jersey Girl, and me. “When you going to stop?” she would call from the bedroom — before tiring, giving up, and just going to sleep. Except Fridays, of course. Except Shabbos. On that she wouldn’t waiver. Steadfast she’d stand at the table, demanding we stop. “Not tonight, Ben,” she’d urge.  “Not tonight.”

She was right, even then.

And vividly I recall a supper in her kitchen…how they were talking of a neighbor’s grave illness.
“He has cancer? asked her son, and the room got silent. Red turned her face, and then white, and then ghostly.
“Don’t use that word!” she admonished, (as I egged on young Joel).

Years later—many years— cancers would touch my family and I too would come to hate the word. She was right.  Again.

In time my marriage crumbled and I was gone from the loop. I can’t recall, frankly, the timing—which came first, etc.—but at some point Lil Selzer took ill. At some point mobility left her but she pushed on valiantly, to her sunset years.  I’d see her at simchas and such—wherever our families convened.  Until I didn’t.

She was a rock in my life without knowing it, and her lessons, like medicine in time release capsules, continue to make me better…

When I take time to listen.

       “…Don’t it always seem to go
       That you don’t know what you’ve got
       ‘Til it’s gone….”

Joni Mitchell

2 Responses to “MY YIDDESHE MAMA (IN LAW)”

  1. Joel says:

    My mother was a tough broad (and smart). In the context of her generation (i.e. going to college or going into business was not the norm for women), I often wondered what she might have accomplished if she had been born a man.

  2. Jackie says:

    My Mom would’ve loved this. Thank you for doing it :)

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