A Force of Nature

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My mother-in-law was a force of nature. So vivid and bright, even in the black and white world of a Northern Ireland childhood, the sun dimmed in her presence because he knew when he was beat. She didn’t wear pink; she wore fuchsia. She didn’t wear peach or salmon; she wore orange. Her red was the color of a rose or a fire engine. She had to go out and buy a black skirt to wear to my wedding. She wore it again to her daughter’s. Waste not, want not.

Her hats were the bigger, the brighter, the better. The brighter, the better was her life’s motto. Her funeral was a rainbow of colored shirts, wildflowers and sunflowers, but nothing that competed with her own colorful life.
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She adored her father and was named for the French woman who helped save his life in World War I. With Oliver Cromwell in her family tree and two uncles that worked on the Titanic, she was no less interesting. Growing up in Northern Ireland to a Catholic mother and a father who was Protestant, she never had much love for the church. Despite that, she supported my decision to convert to Catholicism and encouraged my spiritual journey even though it was so different from her own.

She spoke her mind, which often got her in trouble with her mother and sisters, but none of that bothered her or mattered to her. She was her own person, and she gave a little bit of that to her children and grandchildren. When my daughter wears a hair tie as a bracelet or a pair of purple shorts with a striped orange shirt, I see her grandmother. And her grandmother loves it. The last day they saw each other, Grandma was more than a little excited that my daughter was wearing a pink and orange t-shirt from Eddie Bauer that she had gotten for 70% off. I was going to go back and pick one up for her.

There wasn’t a bargain that Grandma didn’t like. Some of that came from World War II rationing and frugality, and some of it from the thrill of getting more than you paid for. She would love that our rental car was a free upgrade or that the pizza place gave Gerald and Dana free garlic knots and cups of lemonade. In the last two weeks since she passed away, my kids have found a fully intact Angry Birds (red of, course) Hot Wheels racing set in the street and about a dozen pennies individually on their travels. They must be gifts from Grandma.

Her coffee table was covered with coupons and free pens from every fair and expo on Long Island.

She didn’t drive, but nothing would stop her. She would grab a bus at the drop of a hat and be at the Albany Bus station for us to pick her up by that afternoon. She was always on the move, and long home before we cold even make it out of the door.

Childhood rationing contributed to doing without or stretching what was. She could cook anything. Take a pile of leftovers or pantry items and create something that a gourmet chef would be jealous of. My husband has always had me make his Mom’s Christmas dinner for us, and it is really good, but not the same and not nearly as flavorful. I guess I don’t have that secret ingredient that Jean had for everything – a free spirit in everything she did.

Anything I could say about her trifle would not do it justice. My husband still talks about her Easter Bunny Peeps Cake every Easter, wanting it.

She was an expert at finding the kids winter coats and at ridiculously low prices. I think the first winter coat Zachary bought for himself was his junior year of high school. Mike still wears his childhood hat that she knitted for him and a puffy, ankle-length (yes, even on my husband, who’s 6’4″) winter parka that is so warm he sweats in it and can’t ever wear it in the car. Pretty sure it was Eddie Bauer, and whatever was paid for it was worth it for the decade or so that he’s been wearing it.

Her gardens were always blooming and we brought in pictures that last week for her to see how well they were looking. She hadn’t caught up with the technology that would let you see pictures minutes later, but she still liked it.
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I admire her spirit – as a teenager and young woman, she left home and traveled the world: Australia, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, places whose names have changed several times over, real rural and outskirts of what would become thriving cities, some unrecognizable today. The pictures are in black and white, but in vivid color in her mind and the memories she shared. Adventure was in her soul. No one would call her timid.

Nothing I could write will give even a minuscule notion of what we lost this week. She is more than I could ever be, but that’s not jealousy, that’s awe.

Like I said, a force of nature.

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