The Daughter-in-Law

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By Donna Cardillo

The inevitable had happened. My mother-in-law, three months shy of her 100th birthday, passed away. I knew it would be my responsibility to empty her apartment and pack up or dispose of her belongings. Why me, the daughter-in-law? Because I was her primary caregiver. Both of her sons were ill or disabled and physically and emotionally not up to the task.

It is such an intimate and sacred process of going through the personal belongings of someone after they have died, especially a parent. She had been a second mother to me and we had forged a strong emotional bond over the years. She had come to rely on me for so much. She’d let down her guard with me and revealed her vulnerabilities: her fears; her anxieties; her sorrows; while putting on a happy, carefree face for her boys and other family members so as not to concern them. She also felt comfortable discussing her own death with me, including her desired funeral arrangements, something it was difficult for her to talk about with her own children just as it was for them.

In a small drawer in her bedroom dresser, I found several items I had never seen before in the almost 40 years I had known her: A small heart-shaped, stained cardboard box with the word “Marriage” printed on it in gold lettering and the handwritten date: 11-6-37—her wedding day over 80 years prior. It contained seven once white but now brownish yellow candied almonds apparently a souvenir wedding favor from her nuptials. Alongside the box was a pair of well-worn high-top baby shoes from a bygone era, carefully stuffed with tissue paper to hold their shape. These presumably belonged to my husband, her firstborn. And in a small opaque cellophane envelope, two individually wrapped ringlets of fine hair, tied with a thin, faded pink ribbon, one from each son. Here were three items that best represented her life, those things that were most important and precious to her existence: Family.

They say that our life flashes before our eyes when faced with death. In this case, her life flashed before my eyes: a 16-year-old farm girl boarding a ship from Italy to come to America for a better life; taking English classes at night in Greenwich Village, New York, where she met her husband-to-be, the love of her life; and raising 2 boys in a three-room, third-floor walk-up, after becoming a daughter-in-law herself.

© Copyright Donna Cardillo.

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