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APRIL 16, 2010 9:17AM

A Few Words For Bessie Mae

Rate: 63 Flag

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.






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Amazing and lovely, Joan! I love this piece so much. She sounds like a real character and a loving MIL and grandmother. Who could ask for more? (Well, maybe a roasted chicken that isn't pale and flabby!)
I cannot seem to write my own obituary, so I wrote one for her.
Oh, Joan, this is such a beautiful story! I've always felt that those who die in there sleep are given a wonderful gift. They leave us still dreaming of the future and step into an adventure far superior than anything they could have imagined. Your mother in law sounds like a woman worth knowing. How lucky for you that you had that opportunity.

"I wish I could buy you for what you are worth and sell you for what you think you are worth."

I love the last part of that sentiment. If only we all realized our worth!
The irony is not lost on me that Bessie Mae died watching "The Guiding Light". How fitting....
Having known and know, a lot of bi-racial couples, the family on each side is usually the hardest barrier to overcome. It seems you did a great job for a free-wheeling lady who loved life. If you got to go out, you can at least do it in style. Great post Joan!
Lovely and wise and funny, too.
Bell, thank you. You just had to stay out of her kitchen and you'd be fine.
Donna, yes, that part about knowing your own worth is something I'm still trying to learn from her. Thanks for reading.
Cartouche, it was not lost on me either... Thanks for reading.
Joan, this was just so great. Great detail: Favorite: How she gets the kids to play "cleaning games."
Just really a tight, and powerful piece. RIP, Bessie Mae.

I would love to see a picture of her chicken.

I loved this - and I would have loved Bessie Mae, although I think she might have terrified me. What a great kind of woman to have in your daughter's gene pool - and to have as an influence in your own life. Sometimes, blood IS overrated.
Your good fortune in having the chance to know and love--and be loved by--Bessie Mae is partly repaid by your making her known to us. Quite a person! Quite a lovely obituary!
What an inspiring woman. It feels good to read about women who are strong willed and quirky, who authored and lived their lives as they pleased, way before I was a flyspeck. Rock on rubbery disgusting chicken! I've got other things to do. This was the woman who made your hubby, meaning he must be likewise awesome.
My favorite line: "She got rid of her husband and

Well, maybe my second favorite, after the one about buying
her for what she was worth and selling her for what she
thought she was worth.
Joan, this is a lovely tribute to your mother-in-law - she sounds incredible!! ~r!
Joan, I laughed and while I laughed I felt the tears roll down my cheeks. I lost my dearest mother-in-law. She sounds a lot like Bessie Mae, minus the cool, red car (love that!).

Beautifully written and definitely rated!
Joan this is such a lovely tribute to your mother-in-law. She is proud.
"I worried she could see my inner heathen." a superb line! Excellent as always. R
A loving and colorful portrait, Joan. Thanks for sharing her with us.
This is a beautiful tribute, Joan. I loved it.
What a great tribute. I wish I had known Bessie Mae; you make me feel I had. The red sports car, "cleaning day", and the flabby chicken are just elements that stand out in a beautifully realized story. Beautiful.
This was so very beautifully written. What a grand lady, thank you for sharing her with us.
I feel like I know Bessie Mae. I sure have known several like her. As busy as you are answering all these comments, check out today's post on my page, and you will meet another mother-in-law for the books. Lovely post.
Reading your obit for a grand mother-in-law was like quenching a thirst for the two I had, who lived far too short for me even to get to know them. You are lucky to have known and been a part of such a strong willed lady, Joan. She is still your guiding light somehow, it seems. Great memorial. Rated.
This was so beautiful and I am now crying. Auntie Mame and your mother in law, livin' large and doin' it their way. You were so blessed. TJ Maxx, my favorite store, I used to say if I can't get it at TJ's I must not need it. Ha. My condolences. Rated.
Joan, you loved her so much. The details in this piece really brought her to life. I can picture her, giving advice to the President.
she was worthy, and your telling of her story is too, thanks.
"sometimes blood is overrated"

Ain't that the truth....I regularly want to trade in my blood relatives for non-blood family/friends whom I consider much more intimate family
I love this piece Joan - - you really gave me a sense of who this woman was. I think the home-making gene was lost on me too. And I loved the sayings of Bessie Mae and her mother. And the truth of "Sometimes blood is overrated." This post is extra-rated ...
Such a wonderful post to be picked! You deserve this EP. Your mother in law deserves it, too.

My own grandmother was "given" to a family member as practically a maid. That way her own mother ensured the girl got to eat, the other family got slave labor. Your words hit me, I remember that story only too well. My grandmother pined for lost opportunities but only in whispered conversations.

Your words are a perfect remembrance.
Joan, a lovely and loving tribute to quite a character. I bet your husband has some stories to tell about growing up with Bessie Mae. Well done!
Wonderful post. She seemed like a wonderful lady!
Beautiful tribute. Sounds like a fascinating woman to have known.
She sounds wonderful. And I loved the way you opened the piece with an initial view of her - disapproving church lady - that turned out to be not the way she was at all. Our view of her grew along with the descrition of your relationship with her. Lovely piece!
Wonderful to read this--I love reading about women who are larger than life. This is a lovely tribute to her.
Scanner, thanks so much for reading and commenting.
Lea, thank you!
Fernsy, Brilliant move, those cleaning games!
Ann, thank you. Yes, I'm glad her blood runs through my daughter's veins. May explain the avoidance of cooking and cleaning.
AHP, I'm so glad you came by to read this.
greenheron, sometimes I think my husband didn't quite "get" her.
sixty candles, thanks. She was really something valuable all right.
Kit, I appreciate you reading and commenting.
Steph, Aw, these wonderful women we had in our lives...
Fay, thanks so much. My first impression of her was not really correct at all.
Kathy, thanks for coming by!
Ranting, I appreciate that.
Elisa, you made me laugh out loud. Yes, even cream of wheat is thicker. It means nothing somehow.
ladyslipper,I appreciate you reading and commenting.
Ll2, you are very welcome. Thanks for coming by!
Lezlie, I'll be right over_
FusunA, I never thought of that, but yes, she is my "guiding light!"
Sheila, thank you. I too have become fond of TJ Maxx since knowing Bessie.
Linda, she would have given Michelle and the girls advice too I'm convinced.
dianaani, thank you!
Placebo, in my family of origin, blood is sooo overrated!
Scarlett, its so good to see you! Thanks very much.
Vanessa, I would like to hear more of your grandmother's story.
Lucy, I don't think my husband found her as amusing as I did!
happy, thanks so much for reading.
sweetfeet, one of a kind, that's for sure!
Blue, thanks so much for coming by!
some of us are too big for the worlds were born into. bessie sounds like she qualifies.
I think the only thing Bessie Mae would have disliked about this loving obituary is that it was too short. Sounds like she had several more paragraphs left to live.
Beautiful. Really truly beautiful.
Wonderful tribute to your mother-in-law.

Reminds me of this:

Carried her unprotesting out the door.
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can't hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid's contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in the sunshine. There she goes,
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people's eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

--Gwendolyn Brooks, "the rites for Cousin Vit"
What a beautiful lady, you were blessed to have her for a mother in law, mother by love. rated
She sounds like a fantastic influence and wonderful character . . . she probably watched the election with great interest from the beyond, and most certainly keeps track of the grandkids. How could she not?
Very well deserved EP, Joan. Beautiful
I love old people who don't act old. Very nice tribute. -R-
A lovely, loving tribute to a woman who clearly touched your life.
Thank you for bringing her back to life for us. Just gorgeous and gravid with life enhancing energy.
You brought her back to life for us to meet her.
She sounded like a wise woman!
Thanks Joan.
This was a very vivid picture of a true character. Your love for her shines through.
How wonderful, thank you for sharing so beautifully.
I've known a lot of Bessie Mae's in my lifetime, yet I still wish I could have known yours! However, your wonderful tribute makese feel as if I do. My Aunt J (Jessie Lee) died in het sleep after cleaning her house, taking a long bath, and putting on her new nightgown. Oh, and she did her hair and put on makeup, too. Wish we could all die like that. R
I love women like this. What a great post.
sophieh, I'm glad you came by.
Ben Sen, yes. Exactly. Thank you for reading.
Cranky, she did indeed.
Mimetalker, thank you. I've been thinking about you.
Leeandra, wow, I appreciate the words from Gwendolyn Brooks. They are wonderful.
Poppi, thanks so much.
Owl, that gives me great comfort, you know?
LuluandPhoebe, not silly at all. I had hoped the same thing.
trilogy, thanks so much.
Wright Sight, me too. Thank you for reading.
mLee S. thanks for coming by.
anna1liese, she really did. Thanks.
Brie, thanks for coming by.
Zul, I appreciate you reading and commenting.
Steve, thanks, Darlin'!
Emma, I appreciate you coming by. thank you.
l'Heure Bleue, thank you and I love your name.
Diva, I'll bet Aunt J was something special.
maureen, me too. thanks.
Such a beautiful, beautiful tribute, Joan. I love Bessie! Wow. You're so fortunate to have had her in your life. I had shivers reading this...

Strong and loving women with great flair for life and her family. It is sweet to me that she fell asleep watching the Guiding Light. My mother and grandmothers were huge fans of romantic fiction, though they never watched the soap operas. But my great grandmother had listened to "The Guiding Light" on her farm radio. Somehow I always just thought that set the tone for the hopeless romantic women of our family.

Much love. This was sensational. I have been wanting to get to it for a few days and just did now.
What a great post! Thanks for including us in your memories.
This is a beautiful (and balanced) tribute to a person who sounds incredibly unique. I love the TJ Maxx visuals, getting the kids to love housekeeping, and the comment about how much she thought she was worth! I felt as though I was there with you in your story. Great post. Thanks for introducing Bessie Mae to us, even just a little!
Lovely. You keep her memory vibrant and real for those granddaughters...the best tribute.
Joan, you've captured the spirit of Bessie Mae so vividly, I know her now and miss her with you. Such a light, loving touch you have. You give life with your words, your agile twists and turns of phrase.
..see your inner heathen.. nice.You captured a whole little slice of life beautifully in a short piece.