My two moms: My mother, Dorothy Louise, and my mother-in-law, Mary Katherine, share a laugh at Christmas, 1983.
"A good ol' gal." That's how one relative described my mother-in-law in a note to us shortly after her death just before Christmas. It's an apt description -- one that fits a patchwork quilt of memories I have of her.
But I can't write about my mother-in-law without writing about my own mother. After all, I knew them each for about the same length of time -- I was 45 when my mom died after a gradual, several-years-of-Alzheimer's decline, and my mother-in-law was an integral part of my life for almost 40 years.
Two women born less than six months apart, one in the Chicago suburbs and one in small-town Idaho, brought together by the unlikely -- or so some people thought -- pairing of their offspring.
Mary Katherine (I've seen it at least in one place written 'Kathryn') Wilson, born in September, 1920. Daughter of Viola Elva Boyd and Joseph Jerome Wilson who pretty much eloped because he was Catholic, Canadian, and six years younger than she, and she was a Protestant from Illinois. He was a house painter who settled with his wife in Lake Forest, Illinois where their four children -- two sons, two daughters -- were born. My mother-in-law.
Dorothy Louise Cutting, born in January, 1921. Daughter of Lulu Mae Williams, daughter of a Welsh-born Nevada mining engineer and his wife, and Ralph Philip Cutting, whose parents moved from Danville, Illinois, to the Dakota Territories to Montana where he met Lulu Mae and sat for his pharmacist's license. They settled in Weiser, Idaho, where their three children -- two sons, one who died as a youngster, and one daughter -- were born. My mother.
My mom, a late-in-life bonus baby, was born into a household run by two older women -- her mother and her mother's mother -- who, for whatever reason, didn't think it necessary or didn't have the patience to teach little Dorothy the domestic arts. No cooking, no sewing, no knitting or crocheting, no gardening, no canning or preserving. Instead, she got piano lessons, impeccable manners and a love for literature that probably came from my grandfather. She grew up as the small-town belle of the ball, went off to Whitman College where she majored in English, minored in piano, and filled her diary with notes of parties and outings and dates with half a dozen different young men.
My mother-in-law was taught how to have the house cleaned, the washing and ironing done, and a home-cooked supper on the table. After graduating from high school, she went to beauty school, as it was called back then, and learned hair styling. A professional photograph of Mary K. taken during that era and family talk suggest that she was approached about doing some modeling. If I recall correctly, her father didn't approve the idea. Somewhere along the line, she learned to tap dance and was part of a mass tap dance on the pier in Chicago.
By 1943, my mother, newly graduated from college, was working in Tacoma, Washington. As WWII escalated, however, she went to work for the American Red Cross and was stationed in Washington, D.C.
By 1943, my mother-in-law had met the older brother of her best friend and fallen in love with him. He was a radio operator on a submarine stationed at Norfolk, VA -- I think -- it was wartime, and so she took the train to Washington, D.C., where they were married. No family, no big wedding.
My parents didn't meet until the spring of 1952, after my mother had worked for a time at UC Berkley and lived in a boarding house in San Francisco, then come back to Boise where she rented a room -- people still did that in those days -- from my great-aunt-to-be. My father was the son of a mining lawyer and, a cousin tells me, Idaho "king-maker." My mother's wedding was more of an event.
Writing about my father and my father-in-law is more difficult. Suffice it to say that neither my mother nor my mother-in-law had an easy marriage. But because each had such a strong sense of loyalty, neither spoke much about it to anyone -- for good or bad. That doesn't mean they were saints. Just women coping the best they could under the circumstances, figuring that was part of life.
My mother-in-law and my husband taught me how to cook. My mother taught me how to read. My mother-in-law welcomed me into her air-conditioned home after our first child was born in the middle of a Southern California heat wave. My mother introduced me to music. My mother-in-law made lefse, krub, and rosettes -- foods she had learned to make for her Scandinavian-heritaged husband. My mother made supervisor of secretaries in the Orange County district attorney's office. My mother-in-law nursed her mother through terminal cancer, her father and father-in-law through their final days, and her husband through terminal emphysema. My mother became helpless and I nursed her until, for my family's sake, I had to let others take over.
Most of all, my mother and my mother-in-law became friends. They got together for lunch occasionally and stayed in touch with each other. Neither tried to tell us how to run our lives or raise our kids. Both were there if we needed them.
I probably didn't let either of them know enough how much they had taught me.
So here's to you both, Mom and Mom. I am who I am today because of who you were.
I thank God for each of you.