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Why I’m Giving My Mother-in-Law a Book About a Tyrant

The reason for this Mother's Day gift is no laughing matter


For Mother’s Day, I’m giving my mother-in-law Beverly a book about Joseph Stalin. I’m not implying she’s a totalitarian tyrant, I swear.

My mother-in-law commonly reads the type of books reviewed in The New York Review of Books. While her contemporaries are playing mah jong (though she plays that, too), she’s plugging away at challenging books on history, archeology, politics and foreign affairs. She’s read War and Peace three times. She’ll read anything about Napoleon, Mao Tse Tung or Winston Churchill (her hero). Her idea of relaxing? Lighter fare like The Economist over lunch.

They say the most heated family dynamic is between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. According to psychologist Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want from Me? Learning to Get Along With in-Laws, 60 percent of women describe these bonds as strained, uncomfortable or infuriating. Several years ago, a study by NBC’s iVillage found that 36 percent of women would rather visit the gynecologist than their mother-in-law.

I was in my early 40s when I lost my own mother. My mother-in-law has tried to fill that void, and I love her for it.

Not me. You won’t hear me ranting about a meddling mother-in-law. That’s the stuff of tired old sitcoms or movies like Monster-in-Law. I listen to people’s clichéd jokes — “take my mother-in-law,  no, really, please take her” — and can’t relate. Beverly has never been a “smother-in-law.”

Strong and Opinionated

When I first got engaged to my husband, Marc, she took my hands in hers. “Marc’s father would have loved you,” she said, which made us both well up.

Beverly assured my mother, “He’ll never hurt her.”

She knew what kind of man she’d raised: warm and loving, one who respects women. She also taught him the constellations, Greek mythology, ancient Egyptian history, how to carve a turkey, and how to assess the quality of diamonds and pearls (which has stood me in good stead).

She delights me with charming finds on eBay, sends articles she knows I’ll enjoy, knits us afghans and sweaters and never forgets a birthday. On my 50th, she surprised me with a Chanel evening bag, because, she said, “You would never buy it for yourself.”

Like many first generation Jews in America, Beverly grew up in New York. She lived above her immigrant parents’ grocery store, where she learned to scoop out a pound of butter from a barrel simply by sight.

She graduated high school at 16, and commuted by bus from Spring Valley to Manhattan every day to a special two-year liberal arts/secretarial program at Columbia University. She got engaged to Marc’s dad after only four dates, and married him a few months later. At 35, she was diagnosed with cancer.

“No one wanted to even say the word back then,” she says. “They were afraid that if you talked about it, you’d get it.”

Beverly has weathered multiple illnesses and losses that would have felled anyone less resilient. When she was widowed at 40, she ran her husband’s dental supply business singlehandedly and raised two children herself.

She’s a survivor, strong and opinionated (her children might say stubborn). When she moved out west to Arizona, she said, “Don’t you kids dare get me a computer. I don’t need it and I don’t want it!” We paid no attention and got her one anyway. Now she shops online, posts political articles to Facebook and comments on her grandchildren’s photos — and knows better than to do that in all caps.

If the Shoe Fits

The first time we visited her in Arizona, she pulled me into her closet. “What size are you? I’m de-acquisitioning shoes,” Beverly said. She held up an elegant pair of black velvet pumps for me to admire. “They’re too tight, but oh, I just love these!” she sighed wistfully. “They’re hardly worn at all.” Feeling like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, I forced my feet into her sky-high ankle boots.  “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Where am I going to wear them out here?”

I modeled them for Marc, who rolled his eyes. “Having fun, Imelda Marcos? They’ll never fit in the suitcase,” he said. But I wanted to please my mother-in-law. Even though every pair pinched, I enthusiastically agreed to take six.

Beverly is still stylish and beautiful at 91. Everyone jokes about the Dorian Gray-like portrait of her in the attic that must be doing her aging for her. She was in her early 50s, Marc tells me, when he escorted her to dinner at Maxwell’s Plum, the flamboyant 1970s restaurant in Manhattan known for its hot singles scene. Marc checked their coats, and returned to the bar to find some guy his own age chatting up his mother. “He was hitting on her!” Marc says.

I was in my early 40s when I lost my own mother. My mother-in-law has tried to fill that void, and I love her for it.

“I’m a private person,” she told me recently. “I’m comfortable on my own. I don’t make friends easily, but when I do, I make them for life.” How lucky I am to be one of them.

“So what are we sending her for Mother’s Day?” I ask Marc.

“An orchid?” he suggests.

“With the new Stalin biography,” I add. Because nothing quite says Mother’s Day like a book about a ruthless dictator.

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