The last time she visited, she was already sick. When she left, I walked around my house in a daze, inhaling the smells. In the kitchen, the odors from the supper she’d insisted on making the night before: salty grease from the fried chicken and okra, sticky sweetness from the strawberries and marshmallow yams. In the bathroom, the clean tang of her Avon astringent and body cream. And in the guest room, the vaguely floral smell that must have been her perfume, but seemed like the very scent of her.


Her name was Minnie Louise, a small-town Arkansas gal, but I called her Minna, because she thought it sounded French, mysterious. For years, we talked on the phone every morning, even when my husband and I weren’t getting along, even when I feared we’d end up divorced. Our relationship was one of the richest in my adult life, but whenever I told friends she was coming to visit me, they groaned. They all had mother-in-law horror stories. The very term mother-in-law seems to be only an occasion for jokes.


Did you hear the one about the mother-in-law who made a string of beautiful beads for her daughter-in-law, with a card that read, “Worry beads, for your busy little hands”?


I wring my hands; I also crack my knuckles, pick my nails, tear my cuticles. As a child these were embarrassing tics, but in Minna’s eyes they became signs of my sensitivity, of the harsh way she was sure the world had treated me. She respected me as a woman and a mother and a writer, and most important, she gave me back my position as a daughter. And I loved her with a child-like intensity that always wanted more.

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Published on January 21, 2009 00:00 • 342 views

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