Dear Jane

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.
Courtesy of the Mackintosh Family
Photographs courtesy of

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.


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