Bessie Mae was my mother in law. Her son brought me to meet her the summer before we married. Bessie was is the middle of bible study with her next door neighbor. She eyed me suspiciously. I felt myself wither a little under her gaze and the August heat. I was pretty sure she didn't like me too much. I worried she disapproved of her son dating a white girl. I worried she could see my inner heathen.
Bessie was the oldest of ten children. She spent her childhood doing housework not homework. She was taken out of school in the eighth grade. This explained a lot. As an adult she rarely cooked or cleaned. When the grandchildren came along, she enlisted them on Saturdays for cleaning day. The funny thing was, they loved it. All five of them, one mine, cleaning for a very smart grandmother.
The homemaking instinct was lost on Bessie. Or perhaps she deliberately buried it after all those young years spent doing nothing else.
When she did cook we were a little scared to eat. It never looked like what it was supposed to be. The roast chickens I've known were brown and crispy. Hers came out of the oven flabby and colorless. Joanie you never eat, she would say.
Once I got past my initial disappointment at not having a motherly type mother-in-law, I saw Bessie for who she was. A free spirit, a rebel, a woman determined to make up for lost time. Bessie educated herself with books and with life. She talked to anyone about anything. She started conversations with total strangers. She never thought she was less than anyone else. When she was a little girl her own mother would say, Bessie Mae, I wish I could buy you for what you are worth and sell you for what you think you are worth.
Bessie definitely knew her own worth. It was a quality I'd hoped would rub off on me.
Bessie raised her children and then gave the rest of her life to herself. She divorced her husband and travelled. Her red sports car was never in the driveway. Bessie had a schedule that made me dizzy. Worked all day. Came home at three 0'clock for "The Guiding Light." Sped off to her second job.
Sometimes Bessie would disappear for days. When she returned she brought back little gifts for the grandkids and me. I still have the "I Love New York" T-shirt she brought me from her last trip. I could not have known that would be her last gift to me. The last gift I could hold in my hands.
Bessie loved me I am pretty sure of that. It was hard to gauge sometimes. She didn't talk a lot about feelings. But I think we did really well for two women brought together by marriage rather than blood.
Sometimes blood is overrated.
Her home resembled the inside of a TJ Maxx store. Enormous Japanese fans on the wall. Cheetah print chairs in the dining room. She wore way too much perfume. Everything Bessie did shouted "Go Big Or Go Home" even before that phrase was invented. She was always trying to lose 50 pounds on some new diet. I'd seen her on the banana diet, the grapefruit diet and the cabbage soup diet to name just a few. I never knew her to lose a single pound.
Larger than life. That is how I would have described my mother-in-law. A character. A friend. When I didn't hear from her for a few days I wondered where she had gone off to this time. I would only know where she had been by the gifts she would bring back.
She did not come back that last time. That day in June she hadn't gone anywhere. She went home to catch "The Guiding Light" and fell asleep. She had planned to go to her second job. She had planned on being at the family reunion later that summer. She probably had another whole lifetime worth of things planned. She died in her sleep that afternoon.
I wish she had not missed seeing the first African American president in the White House. She would have gotten a kick out of that. She would have had plenty of advice for him too.
I wish she had not missed her grand daughters growing into beautiful bright young women. College girls. She would have been so proud.
I wish I could have had more time with her. Like every death, hers came too soon.
I think about all the gifts she left me.
The lessons she taught me.
Sometimes I sneak into TJ Maxx for a few minutes and let the memories wash over me.