Mary Jane

My father in law remarried, last weekend.

I met the bride to be in August and was immensely relieved to find myself drawn unhesitatingly to her warmth and groundedness. She is tall, straight, thin in a way that speaks to a life where everything was more important than eating. Her grandson, his wife, their three little children, one of her daughters and her granddaughter joined us for dinner.

I went on and on about the grandkids. She said, “We always had a very happy home life.”

I think I fell in love nearly as fast as my father in law.

So it was both an honor and a pleasure to join them at the church on Saturday. They stood at the alter with Father Clayton and smiled at each other, their immediate family witnessing the event.

The old church echoed with the baptisms and funerals that marked both their lives, as though time folded in on itself in that place and everything was happening all at once. I honestly felt as if I was witness to all of it, though of course I was not. I had only been there once before.

Eight months ago, we said goodbye to my mother in law in the same beautiful old space. Her open casket sat a foot or two forward of where my father in law and his bride stood last weekend. I thought of that, and of my father in law’s overwhelming cascade of grief both before and after her death.

And then I remembered him laughing with me for the first time in years, an hour before Saturday’s wedding.

And so, when asked, I joined the family in a hearty “We Will!” in answer to the question, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” And as we sat in the pew I traced the palm of my husband’s hand over and over again, and he traced the back of my hand the same number of times.

Let me tell you how I met Mary Jane. I’ll try to keep it brief.

Paco: My step brother’s daughter is getting married in San Antonio. Wanna come to the rehearsal dinner?

Me: Sure. Wow. I haven’t been to hardly any weddings, ever. I know that’s weird. What should I wear?

Paco: I don’t know. These are country people. They don’t get to dress up very often so when they do they usually go all out. The dinner’s at a supper club.

Me: Great. I’ve got a dress. It’s the only dress I own. It’s a little tight, but I think it’ll work.

A month passed. He joined me in my bedroom as we dressed for the drive to San Antonio. I kept checking my work email. I slipped the denim mermaid dress over my lacy black bra and checked to make sure my panty line wasn’t too visible. The dress was a little tight. The colorful espadrilles with a 4″ heel lifted both my butt and my confidence.

Downstairs, we piled into Paco’s beat up Volkswagon bug. It was filled with receipts and cat hair. I bent my head to my laptop, which I’d brought with me; I didn’t lift it again for more than an hour, intent on finishing a report for work.

Paco: We’re here. And there they are, right in front of us. They’ll never believe we got here the same time they did! Mind brushing me off?

Me: Sure, did you bring… Oh. My God.

Me: OH MY GOD.

We were parked in the valet area of some kind of luscious, old, southern mansion. Palm trees, green grass, tropical flowers…. We had pulled in behind a Rolls Royce, and a uniformed valet was helping the super stylish occupants from their respective seats. The woman with the dazzling smile wore some kind of etherial, tailored silk organza creation that looked like it just flew in from Paris. On her left hand she sported the largest diamond ring I’ve ever seen in my life. Jewels were everywhere and yet, somehow, they did not overwhelm her beautiful gown. Her husband wore a jaunty 3 piece suit and a fedora (if it had spoken it would have whispered, “Saville Row”).

Me: Where are we? (I asked, accusingly).

Paco: This is the club. I can’t remember what it’s called. Some kind of private dinner club. Here’s the pet hair roller. Can you get my back?

I glanced up. He was standing outside the car. A valet stood discretely behind him. I stashed my computer under the junk in the floorboard and said:

Me: I’m not sure I should go in.

Paco: What the hell?

Me: YOU DIDN’T TELL ME ABOUT THIS LOOK AT ME I’M WEARING DENIM AND MY DRESS IS TOO SMALL I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO DO.

Paco: They’re just people from the country. They’re nice.

I swallowed and made a decision. Do I go in and meet my destiny? Or do I stay in the car and…. well… meet my destiny?

I gave Paco’s suit a good going over with the cat hair roller, then took his hand and followed the fancy hat.

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Here are the other things that always come to mind when I think of Mary Jane:

  1. She called everybody “Shug”.
  2. The first time Paco took me to spend the night at my future in-law’s place they took us to the country club in their Rolls. She and my future father in law walked in front of us. There had been awkward silence on the way there, so I was both surprised and relived when she stopped and turned to face me. “You’re probably as nervous as I am right now, but don’t worry, Shug. We’ll get some alcohol in us and everything will be just fine.”
  3. And it was even better than just fine.
  4. The next morning I had breakfast with her and she said, “I’m so relieved. We were just so worried that you wouldn’t like us”.
  5. (She said the same thing to every future husband or wife of every child and grandchild. She meant it every time.)
  6. She was well known for her hunting skills and marksmanship. For her 65th birthday, she went bear hunting. She bagged two bears and had them made into rugs. I am 100% against hunting and would be vegan if I had any self discipline at all, but I loved all the trophies and dioramas in that house, even though I stubbed my toes multiple times on those gorgeous bear noses.
  7. She and Jimbo bought White Star champagne by the case because they had two glasses every single evening at 6.
  8. She travelled the world. She encouraged and enabled her children and grandchildren to do the same.
  9. She loved New York City.
  10. She was incredibly smart, and a voracious reader.
  11. Nothing mattered more to her than her family.
  12. She also had one brother; he also died in his 30’s.
  13. She was a belle at the University of Texas when WWII broke out, then went home and married her first husband. They had two children and divorced when the kids were grown.
  14. She and my father in law and her ex husband and his wife were all close friends until her death.
  15. She was beautiful in a way that is rare and hard to describe. Old men squatted down on one knee to speak to her at eye level so she wouldn’t have to rise from her chair. Old women did, too.
  16. She slowly lost her ability to speak over the last two years of her life. The two words she could still say, and which she did say again and again, with my hand (or the hand of all those she loved) pressed to her lips, was “Love you. LOVE you love you love you. Love you.”
  17. I hope never to see a harder or a longer death than the one she endured.

Mary Jane died in her own bedroom in her own lovely, old, South Texas home on a quiet afternoon in February. A nurse pulled her mother’s blanket up under her chin as she fell asleep. Once everyone left the room, she slipped quietly away.

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I knew he was dating. He didn’t try to hide it (why would he?) and I didn’t pass any judgement. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t concerned.

My father in law has friends that have been married 4 or 5 times. Some friends went the trophy wife route. I knew that he could, too. I didn’t ask about the age of his dates; I just encouraged him to enjoy himself and meet lots of people. And he did! He has always thrived on socialization. He dated something like 25 women in about 6 months.

It was, likewise, no surprise when he called us up 3 months ago to tell us he had just (that evening) gotten engaged. It surprised him a bit – he hadn’t planned the proposal to happen so spontaneously – but he was certain it was right and was certain she was certain, too. Of course, they had only been dating for two weeks, so I was worried. But I didn’t say so. As it turned out, I needn’t have been — he had known her for 40 years.

During the engagement he invited her for long weekends in the city. She insisted on a chaperone. This made him giggle. This is the story, an hour before his wedding, that made him laugh.

She is an 81 year old widow of 18 years. He is an 83 year old widower of 8 months. They clicked. They knew their options. They knew each other. I think they both chose well.

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Three months is not enough time to pack, donate, or behest 90 years worth of belongings, many of which were shared with a mate for about 50 years. Jimbo and his new wife will live in Jimbo’s house. In Mary Jane’s house, but it will not be Mary Jane’s house any more.

I asked Mary Jane’s daughter, “How’re you doing with all this?”

She said, “I’m doing ok. There’s just… so…. much. And I worry that he doesn’t realize how much everything is about to change. Thanksgiving. Christmas. The house. In two weeks, she will have moved all her stuff in and this will be… gone.”

I squeezed her hand. It was an insufficient response, but there was nothing I could say. I have worried about the same thing. Worried for Jimbo, and for me.

(Jimbo set my mind at ease on that account, without me even bringing it up. He came to visit while we were going through Mary Jane’s closet and smiled in honest and open approval at the things we picked out. Later he said to me, “I don’t hold any emotional attachment to this house. We can sell it and buy a new one. What Mary Jane and I had was the best for 48 years, and now that’s over. I cried so much Irma said, ‘You have to stop this. You’re going to make yourself sick’… Now that’s done. I sure wasn’t going to keep doing that. Did I tell you what Diana said when I invited her to San Antonio for the weekend?…” And then he laughed, and I knew he had made the right choice.)

Because of that, there were (there are) things to sort through. I sat down with my sisters in law before the wedding and together we went through tubs of gowns, boots, purses, scarves, robes, boots, shoes, and racks and racks of suits, blouses, dresses, skirts, more gowns…. a roomful of clothing. It would make a fabulous collection at auction.

I cannot wear the clothing, for the most part. My mother in law was a size 4, and I am a size 18. Surprisingly there were a few pieces my sister in law (her daughter) found that do fit me, including an amazing and unique cardigan jacket out of raw wool with pueblo style embroidery on it. And while I lusted after some of the more fabulous purses, I pulled out just two I thought I would use every day — what’s the use of leaving something on a display shelf? My nephew’s wife looks like a movie star and can wear and use all of it on a daily basis. I selected the scarves I loved best, and a single belt which must have been much too big for her. Also a wool robe with beautiful embroidery.

During a quiet moment later on, my brother in law’s wife said, “I keep expecting to smell her. It used to be that you would walk down the hall and catch her perfume, but I don’t smell her anymore”.

But her things do smell of her perfume. A lovely sent.

A lovely – and much loved – woman.

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