My mother-in-law was elegant and reserved and taught me the importance of cleaning out a refrigerator. Six years after her death, she still occupies my house—and heart.
It began, more or less, with an afternoon tea party in the spring of 1966. Four months after I had accepted the marriage proposal of her only son, a clever teaching assistant who had graded my history papers at the University of Texas at Austin, Jane Mackintosh arranged to introduce me to her friends at her home in Corpus Christi. Her white frame house was immaculate, with fragrant vine spilling perfectly over the veranda. Tall, slender Jane, in her classic pink linen dress and pearls, embodied elegance and reserve and unobtrusive hospitality, all qualities that had been in short supply in my upbringing. The next forty years would give her ample time to upgrade my taste and fill in a few gaps in my domestic education, and eventually, my mother-in-law would figure as significantly in my life as my own mother.
I gave the eulogy at Jane’s funeral, in 2006. To those in attendance, this may have seemed an unconventional act, but the peculiar tensions that invariably exist between women who share affection for the same man had faded through the years, leaving us both with something more than mutual respect. The memories I shared that day at the St. Michael and All Angels chapel, in Dallas, remain with me still. Now that I am a mother-in-law and a grandmother myself, I understand better what transpired between us. A shy person, Jane lived in dread that I’d write about her someday. I have resisted until now.
The First World War was raging in Europe when Jane was born, in 1916. Her father had served in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines when William McKinley was president. She was the second child and only girl born to Fred and Georgia Porter, in Temple. She had two brothers. Her older one, Fred Jr., died at sixteen of pneumonia, before penicillin was available. The loss affected her father so much that he was still writing poems about the boy when I knew him, in the late sixties. Jane’s younger brother, Edward, became a World War II hero after being shot down while bombing the Ploiesti oil refineries, in Romania. He survived to fly other missions, and his crew members claimed they would fly in a box kite through hell with Captain Ed Porter, but I think his own father was never able to risk investing the love he’d felt for his first son in the second one.
Jane became the dutiful oldest child and surrogate son. She learned to fish and hunt with her father and his bird dogs and had fond memories of camping out with Papa on the Pedernales River. Those outdoor experiences would serve her well when she eventually married and settled in South Texas, where women often have their own shotguns. Her mother saw to it that Jane acquired and honed the resourceful domestic skills of women of her day. I know from perusing her high school and college yearbooks that she had Ingrid Bergman good looks and enough musical talent to star in productions of The Desert Song and The Student Prince, but the twenties didn’t roar much in Temple, and Jane’s chore-filled childhood allowed few hours for idle self-regard. Only by taking long car trips with her could I elicit stories about her working at the medical school in Galveston in the late thirties, after she’d graduated from Southwestern University, in Georgetown. Her face lit up as she remembered young doctors-to-be taking her to the club that would become the infamous Balinese Room after Pearl Harbor. Although the raid-proof club, located at the end of a long pier, was known for its casino gambling, Jane insisted that she only played Ping-Pong.
She never told me why she moved from Galveston to teach school in San Benito, but that’s where she met the young geologist John Mackintosh, from Brownsville, who had just returned from working in the Venezuelan oil fields. He was the son of a Scottish Episcopal priest who had planted mission churches in the Rio Grande Valley, baptized children in the rain in front of the post office, and, according to town lore, heard the confessions of Roman Catholic nuns. I’m sure the young geologist’s bilingual charms were enhanced in Jane’s eyes by the high regard that people in the Valley had for his parents. John shipped out for officer candidate school shortly after he and Jane were married, and she moved back in with her parents, who by that time were living in Austin. Like many young fathers in World War II, he did not see his only son until the child was three years old.
The Great Depression and World War II shaped Jane, as they did so many of her generation. With little money, cleanliness and integrity were the only qualities that could save a family from a quick slide into the dreaded world of “common.” Jane’s ability to “make do” with things that were “perfectly good” was a survival skill she’d use again and again. Nuns in a convent could not mend a pillowcase or darn a sock with such tiny stitches. Her newspaper-wrapped garbage was secure enough for Federal Express, and she is the only woman I’ve ever met who kept her outdoor trash cans as clean and tidy as her own home. She sewed all of her son’s clothes during the war. I was dumbfounded to learn that she considered ready-to-wear clothing so poorly constructed that she never wore a new garment without first resecuring the hem and all the buttons.
I’m certain that she was appalled at the paucity of skills I brought to my own marriage. Whenever she came to visit us, even well into her eighties, Jane swept my porch and the front walk before breakfast; for this woman of another era, a sidewalk still unswept mid-morning signaled to the world that a slovenly family dwelled within. From my own mother, a newspaperwoman who had little time for or patience with housekeeping, I learned to spell and to edit a paragraph. It was my mother-in-law who had to show me a more efficient way to chop an onion and how to make an easy but tasty spaghetti sauce.
Slim-hipped Jane always regarded mealtime as a dreadfully messy inconvenience. When visiting in her tranquil, well-ordered home, I would dutifully offer to do the dishes. And she always declined, recalling, “That time you did the dishes, you got so much water on the hardwood floor that I had to rewax it the next day.” She confessed that she sometimes had dreams of cleaning out my refrigerator. That may have been the first time I realized that refrigerators, apart from accidental spills, had to be cleaned. Perhaps I began a writing career because I needed an excuse for my poor performance as a housewife.
I remember after returning from an extended Frommer’s $5-a-day honeymoon in Europe, I had lunch with her and “the hens,” her dearest female friends in Corpus Christi, where she lived for most of her adult life. After reporting on our travels, I announced that my new husband, still a law student, might yet have a lot to learn, but his mother had certainly impressed on him the importance of shining his shoes. During a slump in the geology business in the fifties, Jane had returned to her parents’ home while she got a master’s degree in elementary counseling from the University of Texas, and by scrimping and sacrificing, she had sent her son to board at Austin’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. He’d then gone on to pay for his education at UT, where he’d distinguished himself as an honors student and shown early evidence of sterling character. And all I could give her credit for were his shined shoes?
She never let on how much I embarrassed her that day, especially when I, married for all of three months, then felt compelled to interrupt someone’s account of a feckless husband with the remark that I thought their generation put entirely too much emphasis on their men’s ability to provide. Couldn’t men just be loved for their wit and charm and the books they read? Her friends, I recall, regarded me with gimlet eyes.
She was never intrusive as a mother-in-law, partly because her son would never have stood for it. She had always been her son’s advocate, and now he was mine, defending me against her most innocent suggestions. We now acknowledge we would have benefited from more of her advice. “Buy a little piece of land with water on it out in the country,” she told us. We didn’t. She was admirably tight-lipped as I went about reinventing motherhood, but anytime my little boys stayed with her, they were always returned to me well-scrubbed, shirttails tucked, smelling good, and looking like small Cary Grants, their seventies bowl haircuts parted and slicked down with baby oil. Now that I am a grandmother myself, I regret that I cannot ask her pardon for the time we left her alone at our house for five days with all three boys and a forecast of snow. Using her teacher training, she drew around four-year-old William’s hand and placed the cutout on the refrigerator so that he could turn down the fingers to count the days until Mommy’s return. The second day, as snow flurries closed the schools, my next-door neighbor assisted her in getting a very expensive bottle of wine open at noon.
Jane had dreams and aspirations—many unfulfilled, I’m sure. She longed to see more of the world that she had illuminated for her sixth graders at Wilson Elementary School in Corpus Christi, but like many World War II brides, she had married the sort of man who said, “Paris? I saw it in 1945—don’t want to see it again.” After she was unexpectedly widowed, at age 53, she made up for lost time. She had taught sailing to children at the local yacht club in Corpus; now she sailed with good friends to Jamaica. She took the grand tour of Europe and bought herself a tiny Rolex watch, a diamond ring, a mink coat, a comfortable used Cadillac, and a glorious Persian rug. Who could begrudge her any of these indulgences? Another marriage was unthinkable to her. She enjoyed men’s dinner conversation but otherwise saw them as potential burdens with dirty socks. She never liked flying on airplanes, but with the help of a small flask she kept in her purse, she came to see us in Dallas several times a year. We never had any trouble spotting her when she arrived at Love Field. In her stylish straw or felt cloche, she looked as if a couple of skycaps should be following her with a steamer trunk. The whole world may have forgotten how to dress for traveling, but she hadn’t.
In the vernacular of her day, Jane always looked smart. She had wrenched an elegant life out of scraps and hand-me-downs. She had meticulously wrapped, stored, and cared for the few fine things she had acquired, and it must have pained her greatly to have to pass them on to her careless daughter-in-law, who might forget to hand-wash the hollow-handled knives.
I always regretted that we gave her no granddaughter. She was stuck with three irreverent grandsons who dubbed her “Nannie,” a name she never liked. She taught them to tie their shoes, even the two boys who were left-handed, and urged their mother to be patient with them. They left circles on her good furniture with wet glasses, drilled holes in her back porch with her tools, and talked about things at the table that she thought were unmentionable. She gave them all books on manners and the importance of character and $5 in a birthday card each year . . . or was it $1? They pranked her with phone calls and posed her for a photo shoot at the Selena Memorial on the waterfront in Corpus Christi. They teased her about her passion for cleaning and rolled their eyes about her smoking. Like Bill Clinton, she claimed that she never inhaled—just puffed.
She took them crabbing on Oso Pier and stored the nets and beach chairs in her garage for our forays to Port Aransas, where she delighted in seeing her grandsons discover the pleasures of her adopted coastal home. Although all three boys recall that she had zero sense of humor and made them take naps and eat dinner at her house in their pajamas, I remember her smile when her first grandson exclaimed, “Nannie, the ocean is just like 7-Eleven: it never closes!”
To our Christmas mornings, she brought a whole set of practices I’d never envisioned. Gifts from Jane were often from her church’s thrift store, things she couldn’t believe anyone would discard. Never mind that the monogram on the silver cocktail shaker was a W or that no one really needed a desk set with two pens designated “now” and “later.” She was 82 the year I helped her move to Dallas, and she could still drop to a full squat to pull a weed in her garden or a piece of lint from my carpet. She found items discarded in the alley behind her small West Highland Park house to help one grandson furnish his Uptown apartment. For the other two boys, she found a plastic golf bag that needed only some minor mending and a Byron Nelson golf tournament insulated cooler. No holiday shopping for Nannie that year.
Watching her unwrap a gift could take all morning, since she took such care not to tear the paper and to salvage the ribbon, which she then rolled and secured with a paper clip. The festive day was never complete until she had retrieved every scrap of reusable paper, bagged the trash, and vacuumed the tree needles with my little Eureka while the rest of us had another cup of coffee or dropped coffee cake crumbs in the living room she was trying to return to order. I think she loved us in spite of it all.
I say “I think” because this Mackintosh family that I married into was very reserved about showing emotions. By contrast, my family—mother, father, brother, cousins—laughed easily and often inappropriately, hugged and kissed, and wept over sentimental songs and stupid Hallmark commercials. I cannot remember ever seeing my mother-in-law cry, even though I sat beside her when she buried her parents, her sainted mother-in-law, and her own husband. She never broke down for a minute as we sorted, discarded, and prepared for her move to Dallas from her carefully tended Corpus home of nearly forty years. I occasionally saw her express irritation and disappointment, but her stiff-upper-lip Episcopal restraint usually prevailed, despite her having been born a Methodist.
A broken hip, subsequent rehab, and then Alzheimer’s, which ultimately takes away everything, first took away that emotional restraint. She still didn’t cry, although there was now much to cry about; she exclaimed over how wonderful we all were. “You are a miracle,” she’d say to her son each time we arrived at the nursing home to take her to El Fenix for Sunday lunch. “How did you get here?” she’d ask, as if we’d hacked through a jungle to find her. We felt freer to express our own love for her, and she and I hugged and kissed and held hands for the first time ever. As language began to fail, she sometimes struggled to express her feelings. Once, she said to us, “You and John . . . you are . . . my . . . oh, what are you . . . you’re my mittens.” I thought about how mittens are warm, cozy, easy to put on, and readily available in your coat pockets. As compliments from mothers-in-law go, I figured it was a keeper.
She died in March 2006. After clearing out her small room in Monticello West’s Alzheimer’s wing the next day, I could think only of a poem by another shy girl, Emily Dickinson, which I read as part of the eulogy:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth—
The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Six years later, Jane still occupies my house. The only daughter-in-law gets everything. Her blue Persian rug, which we told her we’d never want, now covers our living room floor. The mammoth French Huguenot vitrine she inherited from her own in-laws now holds handsome old books, counterbalancing the heavy piano at the other end of the room. As a newlywed, I had told her that if she passed that clunky thing on to me, I’d have the hand-carved naked maidens removed. At the time, we were living in a furnished student apartment with the charm of an airport terminal.
The Coalport china with the Indian Tree pattern, which she thought too lovely to actually use, still fills a cabinet in my dining room. It’s missing a few cups and one platter because I do use it. The almond stick for furniture scratches, the neat’s-foot oil for the leather-bound books, the Brasso, the silver polish, her perfectly ordered sewing kit, and the lovely little black-and-gold portable Singer sewing machine she’d hoped I would use at least for mending are all still here. The attic has a box full of more than three hundred letters I wrote to her over the course of her life. These unedited first drafts of stories I later published about my disorderly family are arranged chronologically and were carefully opened with her silver letter opener. She would not be surprised that all of this remains. I never really mastered sweeping up.