Thursday, May 27, 2010

Snapshots of a Mother-OUT-Law

A Message from Mark Twain,
Director of the Office of Persona Management,
Roxie’s World:

The following post was written by Roxie’s amanuensis, Moose. You will notice that in this heartwarming tribute to the recently deceased Mother of the Goosians, she refers to herself and to Goose by non-blogospheric (i.e., “real”) names. This is a clear violation of the identity protocols developed and enforced by my office in order to protect the integrity of the several personae so familiar to and beloved by readers of this blog. After a heated conversation with Moose, I decided to permit this unique exception to the rules, because, well, her heart was set on doing it, and I have learned that once Moose has her heart set on something it’s best to just get out of the way. I suggested that she might want to wait a hundred years or so before publishing this little bit of autobiography, but she was determined to get it out before the blooms were barely off the funeral flowers.

As Roxie would say, Wevs, kids. Take it away, Moose.

* * *

Nothing in our lives quite prepared Mozelle Smith and me for one another. We met in 1985, when Martha and I made our first trip to Texas together. I was 26 years old and didn’t think of that journey as in any way monumental. Martha and I had been living together for less than a year. We didn’t think of ourselves as married, and if you had asked me then if I was planning to spend the rest of my life with her I wouldn’t have known what to say. I was young, and it was a different time. We didn’t think in those terms because in a very real way they weren’t available to us. The lifeworld we were traveling through wasn’t on any of the maps we’d been given. As Adrienne Rich wrote in celebration of the affective, erotic, and political possibilities that were emerging for lesbians in the post-Stonewall period, “[W]e’re out in a country that has no language . . . [W]hatever we do together is pure invention.” Romantic, yes, but it felt that way.

What was true for me and Martha was also true for me and her mother, a West Texas Christian and the wife of a lawyer turned judge. Lacking any guides or pre-formed grids, we had to make up our relationship as we went along. What were we to be to each other? How were we going to fit in one another’s lives? What were we going to call one another?

Fortunately, none of those questions consciously weighed on us in the summer of 1985 when I stumbled into the elegant apartment she and Earl then had in downtown Austin. She was a hostess. I was a houseguest. These were roles we both knew well. Her daughter and I shared a room and a bed, but the only conflict I recall from that trip had to do with coffee. Two days into the visit, I was exhausted, finding it difficult to keep up with Earl and Mozelle on the circuits we made through some mall as part of an indoor fitness routine they were doing. “I feel awful,” I confessed to Martha on one desultory lap past the Foley’s department store. “My head aches. I can’t stay awake. What the heck is the matter with me?” Later, Martha sidled up to her mother and said, “Mom, is there any caffeine in the coffee you’ve been serving us?” Mozelle smiled mischievously and replied, “Oh, a little. We’ve been cutting back, you know.” She pulled a second coffee maker out of the pantry and Martha and I had fully caffeinated coffee for the rest of our stay. And for the next quarter of a century, the story of the strapping young Amazon who needed an extra jolt of joe to keep up with a couple of almost 65-year-olds never failed to get a laugh out of her.

Martha’s family is equal parts Irish and Texan, which means that storytelling is a primary means of bonding and of negotiating one’s place in social and familial structures. I was delighted to enter into family lore with a story about being humbled by the vibrant matriarch of my partner’s colorful clan. Over time, though, Mozelle and I built up a deep relationship less out of big stories than of small moments of intimacy and mutual care. By 1989, when her side of the family staged a massive reunion, our relationship had progressed to the point that she insisted I stand up to be presented with her branch of the family. A few years later, I was thrilled to hear her casually introduce me and Martha to someone as “our daughters.”

Without a doubt, though, the transformative moment in my relationship with my mother-out-law was when Martha had hip replacement surgery in December 1994 and nearly bled to death on the operating table when a vein in her left leg was shredded. What should have been a 2-hour surgery turned into a 9-hour ordeal that I endured alone in a hospital waiting room while Mozelle waited anxiously for news of her youngest child from thousands of miles away. Late in the afternoon, when Martha was safe and stabilized, the surgeon finally emerged to tell me what had happened. As we were talking, the receptionist in the surgical waiting area told me there was a call for me. When I said hello, Mozelle keened into the telephone, “What’s happening to mah ba-a-a-beeee?” As calmly as I could, I relayed to her what the doctor had just told me: Martha had had a difficult time, but she had made it through and was going to be fine. The surgery was successful. She would be spending the night in ICU because they had installed a breathing tube when her blood pressure crashed on the table. I would call her later when Martha was out of recovery.

When we spoke again a few hours later, our moods and roles had switched. Mozelle was calm and listened patiently as I told her how upset I was that the ICU nurses clearly didn’t want me around. Martha had been anxious before the surgery, terrified that something would go wrong, and it had. How could I leave her alone, knowing that her worst fears had nearly been realized? On the other hand, I was exhausted, having gotten up well before the crack of dawn to get to the hospital for a 7:30 a.m. surgery. There was also a young puppy at home who had already spent many hours by herself. “Now, you listen to me, Marilee,” Mozelle interrupted me to say in a kind but firm tone, “you get out of the way and let those nurses do their jobs. Go on home, tend to Roxie, and get some rest. Caretakers have to take care of themselves, too, you know.”

This was a lesson Mozelle knew well from her decades of experience nursing a husband who suffered seven major heart attacks before having a heart transplant in 1991. “Besides,” she slyly deadpanned, “she’s on so many drugs right now she’s not going to remember a single thing you say or do for her tonight, so you might as well go home.”

No one on earth but Martha’s mother could have given me permission to walk away from her that night. That Mozelle did so still strikes me as one of the most loving things anyone has ever done for me. With a few simple words, she powerfully acknowledged my place in her daughter’s life and let me know she trusted me to do right by her. Her faith in me helped to steady me in a profoundly unsteady moment. If Mozelle thought I could handle the situation, then, by golly, I could. I left the hospital with a feeling of immense relief.

A few days later, when Martha faced a second minor surgery to drain and clean the incision to prevent infection, Mozelle became anxious again when she hadn’t heard from me late in the day. (Remember, this was the pre-cell phone era. We didn’t call every person in our life four or five times a day for no particular reason. We waited until we actually had something to say.) When she reached me, I explained that Martha still hadn’t had the surgery yet. It was a weekend. The surgery was low-priority because it wasn’t urgent. In her state of worry, Mo wasn’t convinced. “Now, we are going to be completely honest with each other, Marilee. Don’t sugarcoat it or beat around the bush. Do you swear there is nothing else wrong?” “I swear to you, Mo. Everything is all right. You’ll get nothing but the truth from me.”

In that brief exchange, it seems to me, Mozelle and I fully recognized and embraced the possibilities of our out-law relationship. Parents and children, and perhaps especially mothers and daughters, can’t always tell each other the truth. Their relationships are too fraught with emotion and history, too burdened by psychic need and social expectation. The in-law relationships established through marriage are differently but equally weighed down by convention and structural tension. The mother-in-law is presumed to be a rival to the daughter-in-law, locked in a struggle for the apparently limited attention and affection of the son. The dreadful 2005 film Monster-in-Law, starring Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, is hardly an isolated example of the scorn heaped on the figure of the mother-in-law. She is the butt of a million easy, mindlessly misogynistic jokes.

The daughter-in-law doesn’t fare much better in this toxic cultural scenario. She is perpetually insecure, lacking confidence in her ability to sustain her marriage or manage her life. Seeing herself through the harsh eyes of the mother-in-law, her house is always filthy, her meals inedible, her children badly dressed or behaved.

I should probably note at this point that Mozelle enjoyed wonderful relationships with her actual children-in-law. My goal here is not to assert a privileged status in relation to this remarkable woman or to suggest that my relationship with her was any more genuine or honest than anybody else’s. As her obituary noted, Mozelle was a people person, a gregarious and loving soul who saw the good in everyone and never met a stranger. My relationship with her was unusual because I was the long-term partner of her lesbian daughter. Our sexuality was a challenge to the moral precepts of a faith tradition that mattered deeply to her and to a social world that was sexually conventional and highly patriarchal, despite the presence of numerous hard-drinking, gun-toting, multiply married and divorced women in the family. (No, that is not a bit of Texas-style exaggeration. That is a statement of fact. There’s a reason I described Martha’s family as colorful, and her name was Aunt Thelma.)

I should also acknowledge that Mozelle was as far outside my ken as I was hers. In forging a relationship with her, I had my own lessons to learn – and un-learn – about people of faith. I had to realize that she truly wasn’t judging me, that when she told me she was praying for me she didn’t mean she was on her knees hoping I would renounce lesbianism and embrace her system of belief. That was just her way of saying that she loved me, worried about me, and wanted me to be healthy and safe. She knew that my salvation was my problem, not hers.

When I say that Mozelle and I embraced the possibilities of our out-law relationship, what I mean is we both came to appreciate the freedom to say, do, or be whatever the heck we wanted in relation to one another. There were no rules, no external standards to judge ourselves against. We made a pact in that series of phone calls in 1994, and we stuck to it until the day she died. She knew I would be honest with her. I knew she trusted me and had confidence in my judgment. We were women of different generations, different regions, different sexualities, and different positions on the question of God, but we adored the same redheaded girl and that was good enough for both of us. Love doesn’t make such differences disappear. Sometimes, it just makes them easier to reckon with. Sometimes, though, love makes such differences seem downright delightful.

As her blindness deepened, Mozelle became more and more dependent on others for assistance. I was tickled pink when she would turn to me for help. “Marilee, how does my hair look?” she might say, but I also marveled at how quickly she learned to compensate for her loss of vision by taking in information through her ears and fingers. When I walked her through our house after its renovation, she drilled me on the details of colors and furniture as she slid her hands over every unfamiliar surface. She would reach out and touch a new shirt to get a sense of its appearance. “Let me feel of it,” she’d say. Once, when Martha and I had come to town for a nephew’s wedding, I had neglected to pack a bra. It turned out Mo needed one, too, so off we went to a place called, I swear, Petticoat Fair. The salesclerk asked if we would need one dressing room or two. “One will be fine,” I said. “She can’t see me, and I don’t mind seeing her.” Mo laughed, and we settled down to the serious and seriously intimate business of selecting foundation garments.

Late in the evening of the day she died, I found myself moved to say something that had never occurred to me before but which felt and sounded absolutely right in that moment of unexpected sadness: Mozelle was the best of my bonus moms, the one in whose eyes I was always good enough. I will miss her lilting voice, her relentless good sense, her surprisingly steely resolve, her appreciation for a well-set table and all the people gathered around it. I will miss her calling to tell me about a story on NPR that I really ought to hear. I will miss her expressions of mock indignation at some off-color remark, her impatience with any kind of cynicism.

Mostly, though, I will miss her lessons in out-law intimacy. For a judge’s wife, she was one hell of a renegade. Thank you, Mozelle, for being my partner in the crime of love.

* * *

(Mo and Moose at the Broken Spoke, Austin, TX, 6/29/07. Photo Credit: Sister of the Goosians.)


  1. She sure loved you, ML, and she knew you were taking and would always take care of me. I love remembering how I would try to help her with her hair and she would say, "Marilee?" She knew you were better at that than I (wise woman indeed ;).

    I love the picture of you, holding hands, basking in the late afternoon Texas sun of mid-June. A midsummer night's dream indeed.

    "Blessed are they that play," blessed are they that love. Here's to you, Mama, and here's to you and ML. Here's to OURlaw love!

  2. Let's all take Mozelle as our model for out-law intimacy -- looking and loving with eyes and with hearts mixing each with the other, or using each for the other. Significant otherness works for all kinds of relationships of respect and kind comradaries. And you too sweetie -- thanks for your truthsaying, always.

  3. Candy Man9:16 AM EDT

    Beautiful post, ML. And thanks to Roxie, for letting you have the space. xx

  4. Dudley's human7:09 PM EDT

    A deeply loving tribute to an exceptional woman. Thank you for giving us all the chance to get to know Mozelle Smith a little bit.


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