I miss my ex-mother-in-law. Every day, but especially around Thanksgiving.
For most of my adult life, I spent Thanksgiving with Billy’s family. We started dating in college. My family lived too far away to travel home often, so the first Thanksgiving we spent together was at Billy’s childhood home. My first Chapman Thanksgiving is clear in my memory, even 20 years later. Thirty people attended, arriving hours and hours before dinner was to be served. There was food on every surface in the house – turkey and ham and every pie imaginable and pickle trays and chocolates. Football games boomed in stereo from five different televisions and children played stretched out on their bellies in the kitchen, directly under the action. Everyone brought their dog. It was warm and loud and smelled fantastic. I’d arrived lonely and feeling a bit out-of-place, and was quickly swept up in the warm embrace of my future mother-in-law’s home.
The party lasted all day long, and included neighbors and relatives and friends and assorted strangers linked to each (me). The next day, the fun continued with leftover pie for breakfast and elaborate stacked turkey sandwiches for lunch and dinner. No one left the house to attend to real-life responsibilities, no one had more pressing items on their agenda. We were home together.
That was not how my family celebrated Thanksgiving. We got together and had turkey for dinner and went about our business after loading the dishwasher. It was absolutely adequate – I hadn’t known I was missing anything. But my mother-in-law’s Thanksgivings reset the bar. Kathy proclaimed that Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday, and set about converting everyone around her. She made a powerful case.
Thanksgiving showcased the best of my mother-in-law. She was open and warm and loving from the start. Because I loved Billy, she loved me. A terrific cook, she transformed food into love and memory, making everyone’s favorite everything on Thanksgiving and throughout the year. She was generous to a fault, leading me to lecture her as only a first-time mother could, on not spoiling our precious toddler Simon (she ignored me, as all good grandmothers ignore first-time mothers). We spent weeks and weeks with my in-laws every year, traveling internationally and visiting them in their seaside town. Kathy and I talked every other day, and I asked her opinion on anything and everything related to my life – kids, career, marriage. Nothing was off-limits. I loved her deeply – she was my other mother.
That changed as my marriage to Billy began to unravel. Trapped in my sadness and fear, I reached out to Kathy for help, putting her in a difficult position. Her side on this issue couldn’t be mine. She’d chosen hers at Billy’s birth, as I have mine for Simon and Caden and Lottie, should they be in the same unenviable position one day. Kathy was a child of divorce herself, and knew the pain our separation would cause our children far better than Billy and I did.
I remember talking to her one day while sitting a parking lot. I told her I didn’t think our marriage could survive, and she replied that I had to fix this. Scared I couldn’t fix it in the way she wanted, I asked that she support me no matter our decision. She said no. I cried, saying she was my family, and she quietly reminded me that she was not. It took me two hours to start the car.
Billy and I separated in the fall, and I sent the children with him for Thanksgiving that year. It was what they knew and loved, and I didn’t want them to miss it. I missed it and them and Billy and Kathy so deeply I didn’t get out of bed for three days. I texted Kathy that I loved her and thanked her for keeping the children safe and whole. To my surprise, she called me. She had gone to a neighbor’s house to use their oven (seriously, I am not kidding: Kathy’s Thanksgiving involved the loan of neighbor ovens. She’s a rockstar). She said she was grateful that I had been in her life, and I am sad to say that was the last real conversation I had with her.
In the years that followed, I’ve kept talking to Kathy. I share information about the kids, send pictures, and ask for her help when I am traveling. I send birthday cards and flowers at Mother’s Day from me and the children, and occasionally ask for her recipes. I love her, for the wonderful grandmother she is to our children and the generous mother she was to me.
Kathy’s choice to shift our relationship is painful to me, but I fully understand it. Divorce is a pebble in the water that creates ripples for everyone in the family, and each chooses how she can most comfortably move forward. I don’t assume that because Billy and I are in a better place, Kathy and I will be too. Our relationship, though based on my marriage, was outside of it, and takes its own path.
I haven’t found another mother in Gabe’s mom. Our relationship is different. She’s kind and welcoming to my children, and I am grateful, but we don’t yet have history. We haven’t planned surprise parties together, or listened to a baby’s heartbeat in utero, or gone bra shopping on Oprah’s recommendation. She had a daughter in law before me, and is navigating her own ripples. It’s complicated.
And so, as Thanksgiving nears, I am often sad. I feel out-of-place and a little bit lost again. For nearly 20 years, I spent Thanksgiving with the Chapmans. I miss that warm, loud, dog-filled house. I miss the food. Most of all, I miss my mother-in-law. But a part of me is still her daughter, and she taught me well.
I host my own Chapman Thanksgivings now, filled with noise and children and comfort. I use Kathy’s recipes and fill my own counters with food. Simon makes the Chapman green bean casserole and Caden bakes chocolate pecan pie. We use ovens all over town and everyone brings a dog or two. Some things are different (no football here), but the love and memory remain.