To know when to go away and when to come closer is the key to any lasting relationship.
~Doménico Cieri Estrada
She was a writer. They all were — journalists, novelists, corporate writers, poets, playwrights, and pamphlet writers. The entire family loved the written word, producing it, reading it, talking about it.
I fell in love with their son first, and then with all of them. They embraced me as family and we were all pleased that, when I married their son, I’d have official family status.
When I had married for the first time, as a young Sicilian-American woman, my then-husband and I were integrated instantly into each other’s families and called both sets of parents Mom and Dad. But by the time I got engaged this time around and met his family, I was too many marriages and in-laws down the road to call her Mom, though we grew so close, I might as well have.
I loved her.
Words weren’t my own mother’s thing — numbers were. She had quit banking to raise a family and when she was alive our conversations revolved around our family’s latest crisis, our vacations, and the mundane minutia of everyday life.
But this? This was different. His mother and I could talk about plot and words. Books and craft. Turning life into theatre. Creativity.
Together, we strolled purposefully through art galleries and museums. Like me, she knew what she liked and could move quickly past what she didn’t. Our comments were brief, a few pointed words or a “what do you think of that?” Then, lunch and more talk about books or plays or movies. Once, we even talked about our first loves, in ways a potential mother- and daughter-in-law usually don’t, but writers can.
Letta didn’t look girly, but secretly she was. Her vibe was casual, but dressed up in suit and boots, blunt-cut gray hair, glasses on her nose. She was every inch the playwright.
We liked off-beat, heady movies, the kind her husband and son, both poets, didn’t enjoy, like Rabbit Hole, and I’d sometimes take the ninety-minute train ride up to San Francisco just to see a matinee with her.
At bookstores we’d split up and browse, every so often seeking the other out, an interesting book in hand, asking, “Have you read this?” I’d always follow her recommendations.
This is the family I should have been born into, I thought.
Everything in Letta’s life was fodder for her plays, and sometimes, sitting in the audience I recognized dialogue and family situations that had really happened. Marriages that had ended. Sibling relationships. Her son’s marriage proposal to me.
She could be indirect, sly, even manipulative, and not just in her writing. She had a tweaked sort of mother-energy, different but familiar. Since she hadn’t raised me and our relationship wasn’t fraught with history, her motherly manipulations made me laugh.
And then, one day, four years after we’d met, it was clear that her son and I weren’t going to get married. That I’d have to give him up.
The thought of giving her up, too, was too much to bear.
In my life before then, deaths both literal and figurative had taken husbands, lovers, family. There were only so many loves I could face leaving behind and hers was not among them.
We managed to remain friends, still spending time together. We never really discussed it; we just continued to see each other. Some of her family didn’t approve, thinking our continuing contact, and how much we both seemed to enjoy the connection, made her son feel bad.
She asked him if he minded. He gave his blessing.
Several years passed. She got me involved with a theatre group she co-founded. I remarried. She met and liked my new husband. My friends met and liked her. People who had just been names in conversations became faces, too, and personalities. Our relationship grew even stronger.
Then one day, both of us leaning against the wall in the sunshine outside a small theater in San Francisco where we’d just seen a play, she asked, apropos of nothing, “Do you love me just because of my son?” Her tone was plaintive and maybe a little uncertain, but her meaning hit me like a punch to my solar plexus.
“Oh my God, no! Do you really think that?” I was shocked to the core.
She shook her head. “No. No.” She quickly demurred. “We have a really special relationship.”
On the train home that evening her question was all I could think about. Did she really think that my love for her was all about her son? Had she always thought that way?
Houses along the train track rushed by in a blur and my Kindle lay idle on my lap. Then I had another thought, this one more disturbing. Could she be right? What was our friendship really all about? Why did I love her?
And then, improbably, I heard a Paul Simon song play in my head and I knew.
The moment I got home I began to write. Cut, paste, and inserted it into an e-mail addressed to her.
Into the subject line I typed: Fifty Ways I Love His Mother.
The next morning, a reply.
Later, she told me she’d printed it out, read it and re-read it.
I was relieved. She was almost twenty-five years older than I. One day, in all probability, I’d survive her.
But right now? I wasn’t ready to give her up.
Even if, one day, I see a play she’s written in which an older woman asks someone like me, “Is my son the reason you love me?”
Because, I realized later, it was entirely possible and even plausible that she’d asked the question to generate dialogue she might later use.
Like I said, sly. Number forty-nine of the fifty ways I love his mother.