(This op-ed ran in the LA Times on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 20016)
I was not the absolute worst daughter-in-law who ever lived, but I'm probably the last person my mother-in-law would have chosen to paw through her private papers and possessions. Like almost everything else about her death and its after-mess, however, my mother-in-law had very little control in the end.
She tried though. Even at 93, she kept meticulous financial records. She had a legal will, and she secured it in a safe deposit box at her Michigan bank. She even remembered to send the key to her one and only child, my husband, in L.A.
What she failed to anticipate, however, was that even with her death certificate and the safe-deposit-box key in hand, her son would not be allowed near her will until he’d performed a variety of tasks involving bank rules, probate court, blah blah blah and power of attorney.
That took time, which had something to do with how she came to be cremated weeks before we were able to discover that she’d actually wanted to be buried. Also, with how some of her things were disposed of before we learned she'd earmarked them, heir by heir.
Oops. I bet a curse comes with that.
Because my husband had a job he had to return to quickly and I didn’t, and because there was no one else to do it, the task of clearing out her house fell to me.
I started as soon as we arrived: Faced with the contents of the two-story house (plus basement) where my mother-in-law had lived for more than half of her life, I thought about that wildly popular book that suggests we give the heave-ho to any thing we own that doesn't bring us joy. But my mother-in-law's things did bring her joy — they just didn't do the same for me.
I didn't share her taste for things frilly and was utterly flummoxed by her fondness for those beer steins with faces — Toby mugs. As an unsentimental person, I found myself particularly unsentimental about slides from a lifetime of family vacations and birthday parties. I won't even get into my feelings about her fake flower arrangements, or glass whatnots, or clusters of candles. I think it's fair to say that I didn't share my mother-in-law's taste for … well, anything, except perhaps her son.
Were any of us to imagine the scene, we'd all certainly prefer to picture our belongings cradled in loving hands, eliciting sweet reminiscences from bereaved family and friends who give careful thought to their future. Anything but the hasty mercies of an irritated, sleep-deprived, dry-eyed daughter-in-law seething with resentment for being stuck with sorting, donating and pawning.
The moral of this cautionary tale is don’t alienate or outlive your friends and relations, or maybe, get rid of your stuff while you still can.
When I was a young bride, newly annoyed by my mother-in-law, my father told me that the friction between mothers and daughters-in-law was timeless and innate. He said that I wouldn't understand it until I was a mother.
That irritated the crap out of me and I said so.
But he insisted that no one loves anyone as much as a mother does, which probably made me roll my eyes.
Then he said: “Let me ask you this. If you found out that Mitch (that's my husband) was a violent pedophile who raped little children, would you visit him in prison?”
“Pfft, no way!”
“Ah!” My dad held up his drink in victory. “But if it was your son, you’d visit, and bring him a cake!”
I remembered this conversation as I made my 700th trip upstairs to bring down yet another dusty carousel of old slides. My mother-in-law gave birth to my husband. She loved and raised him. These slides were — I assumed, I still haven’t looked — mostly pictures of him. She did not store these slides on the top shelf of the furthest closet just to torment me. She did so because they were precious to her and gave her joy.
I knew she was still waiting her turn at the crematorium. The idea of simply adding everything she owned to the funeral pyre was wildly tempting. Why not call and ask if I might include a few mementos? Then sneak in the entire contents of her home?
I did not make that call. And I didn't torch her house or dump her slides and doilies and Toby mugs into the local landfill. I just packed them into her car, along with her cremains, and drove back home to L.A. to tuck everything away in a closet for my own daughter-in-law to deal with when the time comes.