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Inheriting an 88-Year-Old Mother-in-Law

When she remarried at 59, the author got a new husband — and a new mom

By Diane Dettmann

This article originally appeared on

On Feb. 19, 2006, when Allan proposed to me at Hoff Jewelers at a mall in Maplewood, Minn., for some odd reason it never dawned on me that I’d be inheriting a mother-in-law, too.
I was 59 and Allan, 60 — youngsters at heart. Our spouses had died, so it was a second marriage for both of us. Still, he wanted to give me a diamond ring. Aglow as the gem sparkled on my finger, I pictured Allan and me hand-in-hand for the rest of our lives.
In April, five months before our September wedding, I was looking forward to retiring from my job with the St. Paul school district. For some strange reason — maybe love, maybe madness — I had sent my husband’s 88-year-old mother, Ilene, an invitation to my retirement party, figuring there was no way she would drive all the way to Minnesota from Florida just to attend my celebration. I had talked to her only a few times on the phone, so what were the chances?
But Ilene, independent woman that she was, packed up her Chevy Impala, headed north and arrived in Minnesota just in time for my party. I was standing in my bedroom, trying to decide which shoes went best with my post-op bunion boot, when I heard a tiny voice come filtering down the hallway. I hobbled into the living room, where my eyes landed on a petite lady dressed in a blue suit, relaxing in our swivel rocking chair. She smiled at me. My first thought was, Oh my God, that’s my future mother-in-law!
Mom Moves North

In July, Allan’s brother arrived pulling a U-Haul trailer; Ilene was behind him in the white Impala. She had found an apartment in Hudson, Wis., just across the river from us. During our frequent visits, Ilene would always greet me with a smile and a kiss. Her generous heart and old-fashioned charm made her easy to love. She never meddled in our life. I got along just fine with my 88-year-old mother-in-law.
Ilene loved to tell us about life on the farm in Emerald, Wis., during the Depression. At 18 she took her first bus ride to Minneapolis and enrolled in business school, paying her tuition with the money she had earned selling berries on the farm. After seven months, she landed a clerical job at Brown & Bigelow adding up time cards. Even when she was widowed at 80, she continued to share her positive energy as a greeter in the Citrus Memorial Hospital emergency room near her home in Inverness, Fla.
One beautiful fall day, some friends invited us over to give Ilene a ride in their Model T Ford — the car she’d learned how to drive when she was 12. Sitting in the driver’s seat, she rubbed her hands gently over the steering wheel and explained how every pedal and button worked. Listening to her share memories of driving and delivering milk in her parents’ Model T was like reconnecting with an old friend. It was a memorable day for all of us.

The Beginning of the End
In November 2011, Ilene broke her hip. After surgery and numerous hospital stays, she wound up in a nursing home 20 miles away from us. Then, on New Year’s Eve day, my husband shattered his knee and broke his back in a ladder accident. With two people now needing my support, I decided to move Ilene to a facility closer to home and made repeated trips there while my husband was at home healing. Ilene and I enjoyed spending time together. Even meeting her at dental and doctor’s appointments gave us time to bond.
One day, at one of those appointments, her doctor said: “Ilene, you seem sad. Is there something bothering you?”
Twisting her hands in her lap, she started to cry. “I’m worried about my son, Allan,” she said. I started to tell him about the ladder accident and suddenly I was crying, too. The doctor, caught between two whimpering women, handed a tissue to Ilene and one to me. With the two of us sniffling, he ordered a mild antidepressant for Ilene. Driving home, I wished the doctor had prescribed me some of those little white pills.
After months of therapy, Allan got stronger. Together we made regular trips to the nursing home. We ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with Ilene, played her old-time polka CDs and bought her scratch-off lottery tickets.
In October 2012, she grew weaker and required more help. Hospice provided music therapy, pastoral support and an extra bath each week — a luxury she loved. During the last week we spent with Ilene, morphine helped ease her pain as we stood by her bedside, held her hand and helped her sip water. Her life ended on Jan. 17, 2013, at the age of 94, but her compassionate spirit will remain with us forever.
Diane Dettmann is the co-author of Miriam Daughter of Finnish Immigrants, a story of her grandparents’ settling in Embarrass, Minn., in the 1920s, where they raised seven children during the Great Depression. In 2011, she released her own memoir, Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow’s Story of Love, Loss and Renewal. She has presented her books at local venues and international conferences in Finland and Canada. Diane lives in Afton, Minn., and is working on a post-WWII novel.

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