The hefty, handmade cookbook is bound by a plastic coil binding. It is divided into sections: Breakfast. Main Dishes. Side Dishes. I know the stories behind each recipe, how my former mother-in-law discovered this punch recipe in Woman’s Day the year my ex-husband was born. The Calabrian meatballs that her Italian mother-in-law taught her to make, a recipe approximated and written down from memory. The puffiest lemon bars with powdered sugar dusted on top, and the bread pudding she always made for my birthday.
When I was 21, I met the woman who became my mother-in-law. It was a bright winter morning during my senior year in college and we had a memorable brunch with my then-boyfriend and her husband, my boyfriend’s father. With her perfect manners and clear thinking, she was poised and brilliant and kind. I fell for her.
Within three years, I was married to her son, the youngest of three boys, and her life and mine were forever linked, which to me was part of the spoils of snagging the boy. I remember how much we laughed together the summer the whole family took the Myers-Briggs test. She and I ended up with the same profile (ENFJ, if you must know).
When my husband left our marriage two decades later, I knew I didn’t want to lose him. But I didn’t want to lose my mother-in-law, either.
When my husband and I divided up belongings as we separated, I took the cookbook. I reasoned that my husband could easily get another one. But the real reason I took that cookbook was that I knew, in the divvying up that was coming, my husband would end up with his mother; if I couldn’t have her, I wanted her cookbook. I had learned to cook those recipes at her elbow. I had handed her the lemon zest and watched her dredge the chicken until I was ready to try it on my own. Long ago, her handmade cookbook had become my kitchen bible. Pages were speckled with the remains of sauces, and filled with stickers — an elephant here, a star there — that my daughters had affixed over the years.
In the first few months after my husband’s departure, I missed her a great deal. I wished we could discuss the painful changes that were happening to all of us. I thought about how, in the 10 days following my mastectomy, she had smuggled delicious food into the hospital so that I wouldn’t be faced with only Jell-O and tough meat. Once I was convalescing at home, my husband was busy with the children, and she was the one running up and down stairs to bring me everything I needed.
Once I recovered, I enjoyed thinking up ways to treat her, which was easy to do so since she didn’t treat herself much. In her 70s, she had her first ever spa day as a gift from me, and we giggled all the way through our pedicures and massages. Once I took her on a big shopping spree to Marshall’s, and she was amazed by what $50 could buy.
Divorce proceedings dragged on to three years; bitterness grew, as it does. After some initial notes back and forth, she and I grew more distant.
I loved a bright morning in her house, her cooking, NPR on. We talked about books and drank strong, black tea. Over long dinners with dessert, I tried to get her to tell me about her young life in the Brooklyn. Later, she sat with me on the floor of the laundry room with the door closed against small, prying eyes and helped me get every last present from Santa wrapped late on Christmas Eve. What can I say? I loved her with the complacency of someone who was sure this love would continue.
She is still living in this world, but I am now effectively grieving for having lost her. I try not to think of those sunny mornings or her hand in mine, or taking her grocery list for her and coming back with fresh seafood. I try not to smell her hand cream, or think about the sweet opal ring she wore, or the story she told of her husband surprising her with it one Christmas in the bottom of her stocking. I try not to think about picking blueberries and bringing the buckets into the kitchen for her to admire our yield. I try not to think of her packing the picnic basket for an afternoon on the family sailboat, gathering all the life jackets and filling the old green Thermos with coffee.
While we’re not in touch, I hope she knows that I loved her son very much, that I loved him until the end. I hope she knows how hard I tried to make it work.
We had a good run, she and I. Twenty-three years of meals and holidays and talks and treats, starting with that brunch near the Connecticut River. I open that cookbook to the pages with all the flecks of spilled food and I invite her in by cooking the dishes she taught me to make. When I take a flavorful bite of chicken, perfect in its sauce of sour and salty (but not too salty!), she is there with me because I made it exactly the way she would have.