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Call Her Rose

I am a shameless eavesdropper. One evening in a restaurant I watched a woman bustle in with two children. The three sat at a table close by. I watched her help one boy with his jacket, and, when he sneezed, she reached into her pocket and handed him a Kleenex. When the waitress arrived, the woman asked her what kind of juice she had. After she had recited the list of juices (as I remember, twice) and distributed coloring books, the waitress said to the woman, "What lovely children you have." Before the woman could say anything, the younger boy asserted, "She's not my mother." The waitress, not missing a beat, smiled and said, "Then how lucky you are to have such a good friend." And scrammed. Enter the children's father, greeted with loud cries, of "Dad!"

Who was that woman? A stepmother? The father's girlfriend? An aunt? If an aunt or a stepmother, she is at least granted a word that indicates a direct relationship--in blood or in law--to the children. If she is a girlfriend, she has nothing of the sort. The only relationship recognized is through the father, and the kids might call her by name, but they would refer to her as "My dad's girlfriend."

Suppose she were a stepmother? Stepmothers need not be wicked, but I know several adult children who refer to a stepmother as "my father's wife." With their choice of words, not always intentionally hostile, they acknowledge only the woman's relationship with their parent, disavowing their own relationship to her. She may not, can not, be even a stepmother to them, no matter how loathsome the societal connotations of the word. In the way that they refer to her, the woman's relationship to her husband's children exists only through her husband. She is distanced, sometimes purposely, with the phrase "My father's wife" and is denied the term "stepmother" almost as though "my-father's-wife" were the equivalent "wicked-and-therefore-to-be-distanced-stepmother."

Just as "stepmother" has an unflattering stereotype, so, too, do "mother-in-law" and "daughter-in-law," with each being the butt of many jokes. Yet, no matter many jokes are made, no matter the quality or tenor of their relationship, the bond between the two women is evident in law and in language. Even after a divorce, the enduring relationship, which may or may not continue in fact, is recognized by the use of "former" or "ex," even as a "husband" becomes "an ex."

And that brings up the problem of what to do after a divorce--if for years you've called a mother-in-law, "Mom"? And is there casual cruelty or consideration in asking the elder what she would like to be called? A kind of self-infantalizing in asking the question rather than offering a suggestion? At first after my divorce I couldn't have imagined continuing to call my former mother-in-law "Mom." To do so would have been a verbal denial of the--of my--divorce. As far as I remember, I tried to avoid calling her by name, although when I was helping her sort through her belongings so she could move into a retirement community, I heard myself slip into old habits. But that was ten years later, and even so, having used the word,
"Mom," I was painfully conscious of using the word. The effect on me was not unlike hearing myself call someone by a name and knowing it's the wrong name, and hoping I haven't quite been heard. It's like hitting the wrong note during a piano recital; one hears the wrong note sounded and continues. The question persists for me even now, years after her death.

I'm sure that my own life experience leads me to look for words to show relationships. Yiddish, for example, has words that English does not, specifically words that indicate a direct relationship between the two sets of in-laws, especially providing a word that a mother can use to refer to the mother-in-law of her child; "my daughter's mother-in-law" becomes "my makheteynesta." The word, which has no negative connotations, indicates a direct relationship between the two women. (A similar male in-law relationship is called makhuten. Otherwise, in English, the same problems exist for both sexes; men experience an analogous lack of appropriate verbal identifiers.)

Not long ago I taught an evening course for adult students. Among the students were two women who clearly had a special bond: a woman in her fifties and a woman in her twenties. Kept by a job with longer hours than convenient, the younger regularly came late and slipped into a seat that her classmates recognized as hers, one right next to the older woman. Their affection for one another was evident. There were always a few whispered sentences, and a few morsels of food given to the latecomer--and then to the business of learning. This giving of food and sharing of information was not obtrusive, but it was repeated week after week.

Then, one week, the younger woman did not come to class, and during the break, the other came over to me to explain her absence. I am ashamed of my contribution to the conversation that followed, deeply discomfited by my own comments, and share them here as though a public confession might be a means of expiation. Though of course it is not.

After a moment's conversation, I said that that the two seemed to be close. She beamed, and said, that yes, they were. She said the younger woman was her grandson's mother. And then we spoke about the little boy, and then I said something more about the obvious warm feelings between them. And that's when I said it, how, it didn't seem right that our language was so impoverished that we had lacked a word to use, a word such as might be parallel to the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law, to describe their relationship. She brightened, and taught me my lesson for the evening, "But there is a word," she assured me, "friend."

Hearing her answer I was abashed, and felt myself chastised though there was nothing in her tone nor in her manner that led me to believe that she intended to rebuke me. Friend. The very word the waitress had used to gloss over the awkward moment of "She's not my mother." The very word that might have given the answer of what to call my mother-in-law.

To use the word "friend" is easy, deceptively so. We have no words to substitute for "grandson's mother," "son's grandmother," "Dad's girlfriend," "boyfriend's daughter." However, it just may be that rather than poverty of language, we are faced with exactness of expression. It may be simply that we have no words to express these unique relationships because we do not believe that such connections are sufficiently direct and genuinely enduring that they merit a name, no matter how earnestly we might wish it were otherwise, no matter how pretty it would be to think so.

2002 Miriam N. Kotzin
"Call Her Rose" first appeared in the Drexel Online Journal, Fall 2002.

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