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Sunday Journal: All-wrong mother-in-law was right in the end

She was my first Jewish mother. I ran away to Miami with a civil rights lawyer. When he took me to meet his mother, I was nervous, but sure I could win her over. Southerners are known for their charm.

She lived in a high-rise on Miami Beach. I had never known anyone who lived in a high-rise. We had tall office buildings and hotels in Mississippi, but no one lived in them.

The hall smelled like cooking, and when Jean opened the door, I was momentarily blinded, not only by the light off Biscayne Bay, but by the champagne glow of her hair. She was thin and tanned the color of a walnut. She wore a short white shift that showed off her legs and a colorful chiffon scarf around her corded throat.

Unfriendly blue eyes looked me up and down. She grabbed her son. "Isn't he handsome?" I agreed that he was. These were the first and almost the only words she sent my way that evening.

We had come for dinner and nothing Jean served looked familiar. I thought she was trying to make me uncomfortable, but we went there for other dinners. This was her celebratory meal. She did not cook. Bruce said the best food he ate as a child came from the high school cafeteria, which gives you an idea. Everything at this meal came from Epicure, the gourmet market.

We had beet soup with sour cream floating on top. (Sour cream was not a known ingredient in my mother's house.) We had pieces of wet, gray fish with horseradish. I pushed mine around my plate.

"What's the matter?" Jean said to Bruce. "She doesn't eat."

We had brisket, which had apparently been drying (along with the potatoes) in the oven all afternoon. I managed that without being reprimanded. There was noodle pudding, served in an aluminum pan. I actually liked that, especially the crisp edges.

I talked; I smiled; I told stories; but I could see in Jean's eyes that I did not register. I was the goy, come to steal her only son, her Jewish prince. There was not enough charm in the world to make up for that.

She had a job running the bag shop at the Fontainebleau and managed on a meager salary. The apartment's bathroom towels and mat? From the Fontainebleau. Toilet paper and restroom paper towels, likewise. The salt, sugar, butter, cream and jam — all little packets — came from the hotel's restaurant. Her refrigerator, on days when she wasn't feeding us, contained nothing but canned peaches, cottage cheese and rolls from the hotel breadbaskets, rolls like stones.

Her life was filled with small indignities: the bus driver who'd tried to get smart, a man in the store thinking he would put one over on her. She called herself a widow, though Bruce kept pointing out she was divorced when his father died.

There was a rich old suitor. He'd bought the condo and offered to marry Jean. He had grown children and wanted a prenup, but she found this degrading and refused to sign. He still appeared from time to time, tiny and bald with shrewd eyes. He took us to the occasional dinner and show at — where else? — the Fontainebleau, but there would be no marriage.

Whenever she spoke to her son she called me That Woman From Mississippi.

Bruce and I married, but in her eyes I was not the real wife; I was a stand-in. I continued to act friendly, but it's hard to be friends with someone who dislikes you. When she telephoned, she would speak only to Bruce. She complained that he never came to see her; he cared more about poor people than his own mother.

One night she called the house saying she was having a heart attack. We lived in Homestead. Bruce got up, dressed, and drove the 50 miles to Miami Beach. She was fine.

The next time she did this, he called 911, but she refused to open the door for the men from fire rescue.

She telephoned with a threat. Because of his neglect, she was going to jump off the balcony.

Bruce said, "Jump, Mother."

I was speechless. Where did he find the nerve?

She did not jump.

But she was right in the end. It didn't last. Bruce left That Woman From Mississippi for one of his law students, 15 years younger and — guess what — Jewish.

They moved to Fort Lauderdale and had three children. I lost touch, but I don't believe he became a more caring son. Bruce called to give me the news.

Jean had died alone at that same table where she'd fed us.

Norma Watkins divides her year between Miami and Northern California. Her Web site is normawatkins.com.

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Sunday Journal: All-wrong mother-in-law was right in the end 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 4:31am]

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