She’s been my second mother for over half my life. She has said many times to me, “You guys got divorced. I didn’t get divorced.” I’ve grappled with that a lot. How much does the relationship title matter? What are we now to each other? He left. She stayed. There is no one else here for her. I guess I don’t have a responsibility toward her anymore either. But what does reponsibility mean? Mine is a moral one and even though my marriage to her son is over, my love for her hasn’t changed. It is all very confusing.
I think back on our relationship throughout the past three decades. Lots of raucous laughter. Shared secrets. Private jokes. Tears no one else saw. Each year she would come up for a weeklong visit from Florida and extend the stay week by week until she was living with us for a couple of months. There were many times that she was the only one I could confide in or who truly understood what my life was like, for better and for worse, since she was experiencing it too.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I knocked on the door six feet across from our bedroom, and said, “Good morning, Grandma.” She got it immediately. She is an absolutely devoted Nana. A get-on-the-floor, play with toys, and use-your-imagination Nana. A rock-the-baby on her chest for hours Nana. A Nana who has private jokes with each grandchild. A Nana who is sick with so many chronic illnesses but made it kid-friendly by saying, “Nana has spaghetti legs today.” A Nana who still remembers every detail about the kids’ lives. A Nana who my eldest son still still talks to for hours by phone.
She is a mother-in-law who never judges out loud. Living with us, she saw me at my most authentic, vulnerable, natural state. Yet she constantly and continually tells me what a great mother I am, in person and on my voice mail. A Mother-in-law who memorizes the Jewish holiday chapters of her book before each holiday so that she, a Catholic woman, can use the correct greeting, make the right food, and discuss the holiday with knowledge. Together we love the story of Ruth and Naomi. A Nana who wears the cross necklace we bought for her in Jerusalem proudly, but told my kids when they were young that it was an airplane so that they wouldn’t be confused.
Fourteen years ago, as the kids got older, and her illnesses worsened, she moved to New York so that she could be here full time. She lived ten minutes away and for years got to experience every holiday, snow storm, and birthday party. After the divorce and my move, her home was the natural destination for the visits my kids had with their father, since he wanted to see her and them in one visit. I wasn’t sure what the expectation was for me to see her, I wasn’t sure what role my ex-mother-in-law and I were supposed to play in each other’s lives, and I didn’t know what to do with the feelings that she was still the person who had been my second mother all of these years. The visits to our home stopped. We still continued our phone friendship and remain in each other’s lives that way.
As my children’s father visited with them less, I started taking them to visit their Nana. The kids are older and their lives are busier, so the visits aren’t as often or long as we would’ve wanted. The holidays, snow days and everyday life together are over. When we speak she says to me, “I have wonderful memories and that’s what I’m grateful for.”
And today my youngest daughter and I visited her for the last time in her New York home. He left and she stayed and there is no other family here for her. This week she is moving back to be near her other sons and granddaughter. I thought she was moving next week and that when I visited her today that I would still have one more visit next weekend. I wasn’t prepared for this last local hug. As we left, my daughter said to me, “Do you need to cry?” I said, “Yes.” Because a mother of mine is leaving me. Because this is truly the end of an era; it’s the end of a large book of my life.
She’s moving to a wonderful vacation destination so it makes it easier to plan to visit. But, as one of my kids pointed out recently, ” It’s not your family, though, Mom. Shouldn’t it be Dad who brings us to see her?” How do you separate a true bond from the one that’s labelled? How can a mother stop being a mother just because there’s been a divorce?
Because of the nature of our family, the reality is that I will be the one to bring the kids on vacation to Florida to see Nana. And I am grateful. Because the love in my heart is real and no marriage status can change that.