As I write this, I’m preparing to head northwest in Maine, over to The Forks, for a story about whitewater rafting. I bought a drybag so I can bring my cell phone, a notepad and a fleece vest on my trip down the Kennebec. I’ve packed my bathing suit, water sandals and quick-dry shorts and will stop at a drug store this afternoon to get a floatable croakie — a band that slips around my neck and over the earpieces of my sunglasses to keep me from losing them in all the excitement.
I’m looking forward to this adventure — the thrill of the trip downriver, the interesting people I’ll meet and the challenge of writing about it next week. But I also find myself feeling a little pensive, recalling the last time I went rafting and the great, surprising pleasure of sharing that trip with my dear mother-in-law, who was about 80 at the time.
It must have been the summer of 2001; the trip was a present for my 47th birthday. My sons, Jackson and Luke, would have been 15 and 13. Their father, Wes, and I were in the 22nd year of our marriage. And his mother, Mary Lou, was born in 1921, so, yes, she would have turned 80 that summer.
My marriage to Wes ended in divorce in 2010, followed shortly afterward by his tragic, accidental death. The 30 years we shared together were, like many marriages, marked by episodes of great happiness, some times of real difficulty and long periods of routine navigation through life. Throughout all those years, and afterward, Mary Lou was a steadfast source of support, encouragement, good humor and generosity. Her death earlier this month, just shy of her 95th birthday, leaves me feeling a little unmoored.
The weekend we went rafting was a case in point. It was her idea that she should accompany us, as she often invited herself along on our family adventures. I was initially skeptical. She was 80 years old! Although she was remarkably active for her age and in great health, I worried that she would not be physically capable of the wild ride down the river, that she would require special treatment and maybe even get hurt. She was politely insistent, suggesting, somewhat insincerely, that if the rafting guide thought it was a bad idea for her to join the trip, she’d happily wait for us at the lodge and knit.
As her ideas often did, it all worked out fine. At the suggestion of the guide, Mary Lou opted out of the first half of the trip, which was the wildest and most difficult stretch. But when our little group of rafts pulled out on a sandy beach at noontime, Mary Lou arrived with the staff that met us there with a terrific picnic lunch. She trotted easily down the long, steep stairway from the roadside to the riverbank, wearing her fanny pack, her aviator shades and a big smile.
She loaded up a plateful of food and engaged easily with the others in the group. After lunch, she climbed aboard our raft and thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the trip downriver, which featured less dramatic but still exciting rapids, beautiful scenery and the opportunity, in quieter stretches, to swim alongside the raft.
Mary Lou impressed us all that day with her enthusiasm, her easy athleticism and her can-do spirit. Having her along enriched the whole experience and remains the highlight of my memory.
Relationships take time to build. I was initially wary of my in laws, not having grown up in a particularly warm or close-knit family myself. I felt protective of my relationship with Wes and the life we were building together with our children. I did not warm easily to having Mary Lou come for visits. But she visited anyway, especially after she was widowed, especially after our sons were born, undeterred by my tepid hospitality.
She would arrive with small gifts for each of us — a simple toy for the boys, a packet of family photos for Wes, a new dish towel for me. She’d set up camp in the guest room, no fuss, no bother. She never stayed for more than a couple of days. She was as low-maintenance a houseguest as anyone could ask for. She frequently asked to prepare a meal or tidy up the kitchen afterward. She was always interested in Wes’ work and his hobbies, asking insightful questions and encouraging him to pursue his artistic nature. She engaged easily with Jackson and Luke, playing with them in the backyard, taking them to the children’s museum or the park, reading to them at bedtime. They adored their Nana.
I was a tougher nut to crack. But over time, I came to appreciate and then deeply love this witty, practical, intelligent woman who was so determined to make me part of her life. When Wes and I separated and then divorced, I believe she was as bewildered and sad about it as we were. I am endlessly grateful that, after the tragedy of his death, she and I were able to rebuild our loving relationship. I visited her a few days before she died and came away filled with peace and tenderness.
I remarried about a year ago and am blessed with another fantastic mother-in-law — smart, funny, opinionated and warm. This time around, I recognize the sweet gift of this relationship. I won’t waste precious time fending off the opportunity to love and be loved by the wise, older woman who raised the man I adore. Because now, of course, with me in my 60s and her in her 90s, there is a little time to be lost.
But tomorrow, as I come coursing down the Kennebec in the good company of adventurers, thrill-seekers and guides, I will hold Mary Lou close in my heart, remembering all the laughter, love and adventure she brought into my life.