Here, belatedly, is my Thanksgiving essay in the New York Daily News:
A Thanksgiving change of heart: How I learned to love my mother-in-law
BY Bob Brody
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Originally Published: Thursday, November 24 2011, 4:49 AM
As soon as I had a mother-in-law, I had issues with her. For starters, she talked too much. She also talked too loud. Plus, she worried too much, tending to see the world as a problem that defied solution.
Every Thanksgiving at our Queens apartment, all these idiosyncrasies collided with combustible force. I’d like to say that I took them in stride and even found some charming. But that would be a lie. We were never going to get along, my mother-in-law and I — that much I could see from the start. The woman got under my skin more than acupuncture.
Still, I stifled my annoyance over my lot in life as her hostage, simmering instead. I never aimed a cross word at her, nor raised my voice to her, nor gave her anything like a dirty look. I bit my tongue and treated her with kid gloves. So it went for 23 years.
Then, in 1998, something strange and surprising happened. She suddenly stopped getting on my nerves — without acting any differently. I, in turn, tried harder to make her happy. After so long avoiding conversations, I started to talk with her. I asked about her life, listening as she reminisced. I took her for long drives. I treated her to dinner at the restaurant of her choice every Sunday at around 5. We actually enjoyed our next Thanksgiving together.
The following spring, at the age of 78, she went into the hospital for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications and lapsed into a coma, no longer able to talk. And on a sweltering June day, just as I had started to get the hang of getting along with her, she died.
Her name, by the way, was Antoinette. Antoinette Chirichella of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But everyone knew her as Nettie. A handsome, olive-skinned woman, usually dressed in a sleeveless house dress. Warm brown eyes, a noble Neapolitan nose, graying hair frizzed high and a smile almost saintly.
Why my abrupt, late change of heart? Maybe Nettie grew on me. Maybe I simply grew up. Maybe it dawned on me that even though she might never change, I certainly could.
Maybe Nettie talked so much because she grew up with three siblings and had to compete for attention at the dinner table. Maybe she had to be loud because only then could her sister seamstresses hear her over the clatter of sewing machines as she slaved in a factory for 47 years.
Maybe, in those last months, I finally recognized how much I owed her. She had raised her daughter — without a husband, on a pittance — and then took care of our two children, too, while my wife and I worked. Nothing was ever easy for her, yet she never gave us an ounce less than her all. Nettie never second-guessed me, never questioned my bad decisions or came down on me when I got fired from my first job; never stopped believing in me even when I almost stopped believing in myself.
So I made amends with an act of apology long overdue. It was as if, toward the end, I had somehow sensed she might be around only a little longer and should make the best of the few moments we had left together.
Nettie has been gone for 12 years now, and I would give most anything to get her back, even if only for an hour, just to keep my apology going. I would love to see her just once more with her grandchildren, both grown so smart, beautiful and talented. We keep her cane on display in our living room, leaning against a dresser, as if to lend our family her support through eternity.
If I ever forget how to feel grateful on Thanksgiving, she’s all the reminder I need.
Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, Queens, blogs at letterstomykids.org.