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    « Bend, don't break | Main | Thanksgiving Abroad: A Bittersweet Holiday in Beirut »

    A Life-Saving Bond Between In-Laws


    For her 60th birthday, my mom cooked steak, but my dad had trouble chewing and five weeks later, at 59, he was dead, and she was facing a lonely house in Miami.

    “Oh, Alfie,” she said. “How am I supposed to do this without you?” She had life insurance, considerable savings and the resources to live most anywhere in the world, which was both a blessing and curse.


    What was next?

    She’d grown up in Chile, the daughter of a mining engineer and nurse, and met my father during a year abroad in Madrid. In this country she lived in the East and then West before settling in Florida — which she felt no real tie to.

    I, too, faced a time of transition, relocating as I was to Turkey, to be near my wife, who had a new job as a radio journalist in Baghdad.

    In the wake of my dad’s death, my mom came to visit me in Istanbul.

    “So, here we are,” she said, lighting a cigarette. In that allegedly fabulous city, she and I wallowed, smoking and guzzling wine and staring at the moon and trying to cheer each other up. Our spouses, we agreed, would love the view of the Bosphorus, and the cobblestone streets, and all that great fish — stuff we had trouble enjoying without them. I wanted so badly for my mom to be happy. In my flat, she set up a sewing machine and worked on hemming a pair of my slacks.

    I imagined she might stay for months.

    A few weeks later, she flew back to Miami.

    How do people come together, and how do they make a life when they’re apart? I had grown up in a sprawling and insane Florida city, and my wife was from the middle of Illinois. When she was in college, her parents moved an hour southeast, to Petersburg, a town of 4,000, with a nice lake, a decent river and a few taverns.

    Based on the map, you’d never imagine Kelly and I might end up together. But over the course of a courtship and eventual marriage — Christmases in Miami and summers in Petersburg — we watched, astonished, as a friendship also developed between the in-laws. It was an unlikely foursome: My father-in-law, Steve, a former prison warden with a gruff way; his wife, Claudia, an eighth-grade history teacher; my dad, an insurance executive who owned 35 pairs of shoes and read The New Yorker; and my mom, whose nickname was Gypsy.

    During one of the early gatherings, Kelly and I were driving the oldsters home, when an Aretha Franklin song came on the stereo. My mom yipped and yelped and there was a squeal — my dad definitely squealed — as he grabbed for the volume knob and cranked it up. Soon enough, all four of the in-laws were whooping it up, even the prison warden, in a group singalong.

    Booze helped. But there was something deeper happening. The six of us spent nearly a whole week soused in a Petersburg lake cove, swimming in warm water, my dad erupting with laughter whenever a fish nibbled on his toes, Steve peeling off his T-shirt and giving us all a peace sign. Another summer, we stayed up till dawn playing Trivial Pursuit, and the parents slayed the kids, answering something like 15 questions in a row. (Barely conscious, my dad correctly blurted out “Haile Selassie!” and I couldn’t have been more proud.) My mother-in-law, Claudia, the consummate cook, even added one of Dad’s recipes to her vaunted shortlist.

    The Christmas after our daughter was born, four very different grandparents took turns holding her, further cementing their relationship.

    Then my dad was dead. His illness was fast and painful. Kelly’s parents flew to Miami after his cremation, and in the week that followed they could see how lost my mom was, pacing the now-empty house.

    Soon after, my wife and I moved abroad.

    After my mom’s too-brief visit with me in Istanbul, I was relieved to hear she and my mother-in-law were talking on the phone. Then Mom announced she was heading up to Petersburg for a visit, which turned into a month, and then longer, as she started looking at property.

    The next thing I knew, she had bought a house on six acres, with a view of rolling hills, five minutes from Steve and Claudia.

    She applied for a Petersburg library card, adopted two dogs and two cats, and then she and Steve set about converting a barn on her property into an art studio. After Claudia and friends took her along to a bluegrass concert, lunch at the V.F.W. hall, and then a parade downtown, my mom said: “Why would anyone live anywhere else? I love this country life!”

    In e-mails she wrote that at times, the wide open farmland stretching in every direction made her feel new and alone, and to keep a sense of balance, she would tell herself that she could leave whenever she wanted.

    After a few months, the bar at the golf course, which offered freshly fried fish every Friday, still hadn’t stocked sake, her favorite drink, and she told me she’d hang a U-turn if she didn’t recognize at least one car in the parking lot.

    She is not the handiest person in a kitchen and felt out of place, she told me, when one day, the women began talking about the proper proportions for a milkshake. Then she realized the version they were hashing out was for a friend dying at a local nursing home.

    I wondered how long she’d last before moving on — she was, as I said, nicknamed Gypsy.

    But when I called recently she caught me off guard when she told me, “I’ll die here, too.”

    While I was too far away and yearned for my dad still, aching for our loss, I had little reason to doubt my mom was happy, and even fewer reasons to worry she’d grow old alone. Perhaps, in a perfect world, something like a small town awaits us all.


    This piece was published by The New York Times. Read the original here