More than an in-law

The other day, Facebook sent me a notification – the 14th anniversary of my friendship with someone special. Little did they know how much that “friendship” means to me and how much longer it has actually been since I’ve known her.

I’ve written a lot about family on this blog, sometimes about my hubby and kids, sometimes about the ones dearest to my heart that I’ve lost. But recently, I was inspired to write about someone who is precious to me, has been a guiding force throughout most my life, and I am fortunate enjoy her company on a regular basis. Her name is Ivonne, and while I call her my mom-in-law to others, that title never seems to do her justice.

When you say your vows, you marry into a family. Some people struggle with relating to their in-laws. Others, like me, are fortunate to strike gold. My in-laws, Pete and Ivonne, are two people who I have known for most of my life, and have been just as important as role models to me as my own parents. My dad passed when I was 22. In the wake of that trauma, Pete and Ivonne were there. When my mom died when I was 49, they were just as much there for me, not in any specific actions they took, but just their presence alone, their empathy, their understanding of my life was enough to help fortify my support system as I processed my loss.

When I got married, it was actually quite natural to call them mom and dad. Not because I didn’t have my own set of parents, but because they were two more loving people that were now permanently infused in my life. Ivonne provided another, different life of experience, messaging, love and guidance. She was an immigrant from Cuba, back when Castro was coming into power. The story of her family’s adjustment into becoming Americans always fascinated me because it was so different from the stories of my own parents. What is most interesting to me is how her experience, while it never defined her, provided the backbone of who she became as a woman, daughter, wife, parent and Nana.

The lessons from Ivonne are vast. I’ve learned how to cook rice and pernil the Cuban way, which has always been quite a boon. While I don’t always act on this as often as I probably should, her rule of always wearing lipstick in pictures does run through my head whenever it’s time to say cheese. Whenever my husband laments that something doesn’t make sense (which is often), I know that his need for sensibility came from his mom. I think one of the most important takeaways that I’ve learned from her is how to take care of your family.

Ivonne, through my eyes

I have always seen Ivonne as a strong woman: capable, confident, nurturing, and not someone to underestimate. Her opinions are hers alone, and she has the intellectual curiosity to understand any situation. I have always felt myself fortunate to be a part of her circle; there has always been a grounding sensibility whenever I am in her presence. She is a blend of logic and pragmatism, ability to create and problem solve, and determination to accomplish what she sets her mind to. She is also a supreme nurturer, who is unquestionably there for her family, and has spent her lifetime creating opportunities to enjoy whatever experience she can to enjoy time with the ones she loves. She created the Sunday family dinner when we got married, and we have been enjoying that practice for 26 years. While I wouldn’t characterize her as wearing rose-colored glasses (she’s too practical for that), she knows how to work with what she’s got to make the best of every situation, and she has been dealt many challenges in her lifetime.

Probably the greatest test for her, one that she is dealing with most now, is the loss of Peter. After a long battle with many cancers and health issues, my dad-in-law passed last July. It was a gut-punch for everyone, but for Ivonne, everything she knew about her life was suddenly shattered. (This is my tribute post to Peter.)

Pete and Ivonne did everything together, made a lifetime of memories through family and friends, and ensured that the next generation would be left in good hands. The loss of her partner meant that everything she understood about her life was forever changed, a harsh truth that she could not have prepared herself for.

As I observe how she has navigated the shock of her life, I do so with the greatest empathy. I know what it means to lose someone so inextricably linked to your heart. I understand the gravity of having to redefine your life in the wake of that loss. Even with that knowledge, I can’t fathom her position in the universe. As we all have rallied around her to help support her, just as she has done for us all these years, the truth is that at the end of the day, she has been grappling with emotions, fears and emptiness that we can’t possibly comprehend. To see her process these emotions is new for me, and I am grateful that she has let me be a part of her grieving process. All I can hope for is that we can ease her pain, even a little, as she inserts herself back into life.

What I am most in awe of about Ivonne, is how there never seems to be an end to her spirit. Her love for life, for family, for spreading good in the world is a ceaseless font. No matter how taxing a challenge might be, she finds the energy, deep in her soul, to continue forward. Even in the wake of her inordinate sorrow, she has engaged in the baby steps necessary to reinvent herself. She is teaching all of us that even when we are not at all okay, we will be, eventually.

With gratitude

So, to the other woman who I get to call “Mom,” know that I take that name seriously every time I say it, and I do so with gratitude for a lifetime of love. “In-law” doesn’t do you justice. From my younger self, who looked up to you, who enjoyed your loving embrace into the family, to my now grown-up self, who has modeled so much of my adulthood in the light of yours, I thank you for being in my life. I know you are just “being you,” but you should know what that means to me.

2 thoughts on “More than an in-law

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