Confessions of a Daughter Outlaw

How divorce freed one woman to love her ex-husband’s mother

Last fall, I caught a morning flight from New York City, where I live, to Buffalo to visit my good friend Annette. White-haired and tiny, 88-year-old Annette clutched my arm while escorting me through the splendid contemporary collections of the Albright-Knox Gallery that afternoon.

At lunch in the gallery dining room, she ordered her usual dry Champagne and peppered me with questions about my life. When an acquaintance swung by our table to say hello, Annette demanded of him, “Meet my daughter outlaw!” She couldn’t have said it with more love, pride and mirth.

For 15 years, I was married to Annette's son Curtis. But since we became unhitched, she and I have become much closer than when she was my mother-in-law.

We all know that the qualities that first charm us when we fall in love with someone can prove the seeds of our undoing later on. With Annette, I've grown to cherish the things that first drove me crazy about her.

From the start, Annette was no nurturer. She hated to cook, gave stiff hugs, tended to swear and interrupt, and was possessed of a vanity that insisted my two girls call her by her first name from the time they were first able to speak. (No old-sounding “Grandma” for this elegant broad.) All this was at odds with the image of a cozy maternal confidante (like Michael Lerned’s beloved Mama Olivia Walton) I had long imagined would be a special bonus of married life. But now, with distance and the passing of time, I can smile at her ability to keep folks on their toes and admire her probing attention to the worlds of art and travel, which over the decades has resulted in the amassing of a world-class archaeological and ethnographic collection.

A much younger me had naturally assumed that the mother of whomever I married would be like a second mother to me. She’d turn me on to great books, show me divine recipes and teach me complicated stitches. She’d become, over time, a comforting sounding board for navigating questions of work, love, kids and sex. As with my own mom but in vastly different ways, through her I’d learn how to weather life’s storms.

I suspect Annette harbored her own fantasies about the kind of woman her youngest son might marry, and if so, it’s safe to say I didn’t fulfill them. While her own home was always impeccably clean, I was a lousy housekeeper who was uncomfortable with the idea of hiring anyone to tend to my brownstone or my girls. And while as a younger woman I had imagined working throughout my life, my surprising decision to parent full-time after my second daughter was born was met with questions from Annette—and defensiveness from me.

“When are you going to get a job?” Anette would ask impatiently during the two or three annual visits she’d make to Brooklyn. I’d usually be folding a pile of laundry as a kid hurled a sippy cup across the kitchen counter.

And so it went. Annette and I failed each other as in-laws just as her son and I failed each other in marriage.

But that is not where the story ends.

Once Annette stopped being my mother-in-law, I could let go of all the things she wasn’t and could to begin to see clearly what she was: deeply curious; restless in a way I can sometimes relate to; a fierce champion of my independence.

About a year after my divorce, Annette collapsed on her way to a play in the city. Curtis was out of town, and it was I who got the call saying she’d been rushed to the hospital. We’d barely been in touch over the previous months.

She ended up being fine—and the next three days, during which I escorted her to the bathroom and watched her boss around nurses, represented a turning point for us. We were two human beings who discovered that, to our mutual shock, we actually liked each other. I was finally able to see her inquiries about my work aspirations not as some kind of veiled criticism but as a belief that I might have something worthwhile to contribute in the world.

Two weeks ago, Annette paid a visit to my Brooklyn brownstone for the first time since Curtis moved out of it three and a half years ago. During that time, many things have changed. In the place of my old mismatched sofas now sit pristine white ones. My formerly dull walls are now painted orange and navy, and my once-weedy garden is cared for, pruned, and in bloom.

But the biggest change has been personal. I started to seriously follow my dreams: I'm writing regularly now and am hosting a steady stream of events out of my home (cooking classes, gardening classes, storytelling evenings) as a first step toward realizing a long-held fantasy of establishing a vital urban retreat. 

Looking around, Annette lavished a kind of praise I’d rarely heard from her before. “It’s a rebirth,” she marveled. “I’m amazed!” And then in true Annette fashion, she cracked, “How could you stand to live the way you did for so long?” We both giggled, then I handed over her cane and drove her the short distance to where her son now lives.

Yesterday morning, I received an email from Annette. “You are to be congratulated for who you’ve become,” she wrote.

I smiled at the message and thought: Right back atya, mother outlaw.

Jenny Douglas is a writer in Brooklyn.


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