Rumor has it that when my husband, Justin, told his mom we were dating one of the first things she asked was if I went camping. Like pee in the woods camping. Luckily, his answer was yes, which I suspect gave me a leg up when I met her a few weeks later. I remember very little about the first time we met, but I do remember that it was a surprise. Justin and I pulled into his brother’s driveway and he said, “Looks like you’re going to meet my mom today, that’s her truck.” I was nervous and caught off guard by how welcoming and unassuming she was. Looking back, I think she was just relieved Justin was dating a teacher – someone who might be able to keep him in line.
Chris, my mother-in-law, was a hard-headed, make-it-work kinda woman who would give anyone her opinion right along with the shirt off her back. Like most progressive women I know, she was complex. Her beliefs were rooted in conservative Lutheran faith and republican blood, but she was pro-women, pro-choice and pro-anything that equalized humanity. She was truly a champion of any cause that could benefit from auctioning off her chocolate cream pie and oatmeal cookies. She loved all of her children (even the ones gained by marriage) in a way that was unconditional, but not exempt from a critical eye. We were all expected to take the high road. Always. I don’t have to look far to see where Justin’s character is rooted.
We hadn’t spent much time with Mama Chris in the years leading up to bringing our son home from India, but when she found out P was “our match”, our adoption was moving forward, and he was coming home to her, our time together increased quickly. I’ve never seen her more excited than when we surprised her with P’s picture as the first introduction to her newest grandson. One thing I’ve learned from Chris is that whatever it is I want from the world, I have to put it out to the world. She lit candles for Parks daily and sent positive vibes and prayers to speed our process and bring him home. It worked. After our adoption was delayed in Indian courts for an undetermined amount of time, we got word that P was one of two children whose cases had been approved. We were bringing him home. Chris, who P would come to know as his Aji (paternal grandmother), could barely walk by the time we brought P home because her knees were causing her so much pain. That didn’t stop her from hobbling her way into the airport, clad in a bold American flag shirt, to meet her new grandson.
It’s been a year today and I can still hear the exact pitch of her voice when she was about to tell me something that required extra attention (“Honey…”). Sometimes something extra feminist or liberal pops out of Justin’s mouth and I think, “You are your mother’s child.” Or, P tries to wear his 4th of July tank top to school, which makes me wonder if Aji’s spirit is helping him pick out his clothes on a random Tuesday in December. I like to think anything is possible.
There’s no eloquent way to put it; the past year has sucked and adulting has been hard. In the midst of our grief we sorted through thousands of family treasures (and junk), sold her house, had to explain to our five year old why his Aji can’t come back, and tried to normalize grief for our nieces and nephews. The bright side is that I’ve learned to have more grace and patience, P had a summer of lawless fun with his cousins (who wouldn’t want to go swimming with bubbles in Aji’s giant bathtub?!), I have a new found interest in minimalism, and I love and respect my sister-in-law and her people more than ever.
As life goes on I will continue to make Chris’s chocolate cream pie just a little lumpy and not quiet as good. I’ll try to live up to the expectation that I might be the woman to keep Justin in line, which will likely be even less successful than the pie. And we’ll all do our best to make sure Aji lives on by doing our best to take the high road.