I first met Mona in 1988. Meeting my boyfriend’s parents was a scary proposition. Terror doesn’t even begin to express the emotions I had running through my mind. So, when I found myself looking down at a tiny woman in her night-gown and worn robe, I was shocked. Her voice was gravelly, sounding perpetually annoyed (the result of thyroid surgery). She sized me up, invited me to sit down and watch some program. I don’t remember what was on the TV that night, but I sat on the sofa next to her chair for what would be the first of many enchanted evenings. I would come to learn that she used her voice to taunt and play with those she loved, perpetually grumbling, always bathing them in love and laughter. Mona was full of mischief.
Her eyes were piercing, keen with intelligence and interest. We got to know each other briefly that evening and I learned of her love of hand-crafts, a passion I’d had for years to my own mother’s horror. Here was someone who saw the value in my play, and we found much to talk about. I was delighted to learn that she was a business woman who had started her own business selling hand-crafts. She invited me to Christmas dinner with the family.
From our first informal visit, I was expecting a quiet family affair, the type I’d heard about but not experienced in my own "let’s go out to eat on holidays" tradition. Of course, Mona surprised me again. I entered a home transformed into a Christmas wonderland with elaborate decorations, tree trimmed to perfection, a table set for about 40 people and a milling crowd enjoying the abundant snack trays placed strategically throughout the house to encourage intimate conversations. On the coffee table was an album of pictures from every Christmas she’d ever hosted. While Mona reigned supreme in her kitchen, one of the aunts took me through the photos, allowing me to see the family history carefully recorded in a series of snapshots of laughing, happy people.
To one side of the kitchen was a counter filled with an abundance of home-made deserts and decadent treats. Mona’s fudge was one of several delicacies I would come to look forward to every year.
Mona loved beautiful things, but not to treasure them. She wanted them to be seen, used and enjoyed. She delighted in making people feel at home and pampered. From that day on, I was more than a little intimidated by her, but also deeply fond of her.
In August of 1989, she swooped to my rescue after we came to an impasse with the wedding planner where I was trying to design our reception. With a quick, "I’ll handle it," she took over and hosted the reception at her home. It wasn’t a small wedding…but she handled it with style and an ease that I will never be able to learn.
It was years before I got the courage to have a Thanksgiving dinner and invite my husband’s parents. After a long drive across two states, she walked in, jumped into the kitchen with encouragement and support that overwhelmed me. My cooking is not even in the same league as hers, but she made over my treats, sampled everything and complained about nothing. Later, she would comment that my taste in wine was slightly different than hers — her only complaint.
We did have our fights. I remember an argument over smoking in the house. We had lost our home and Mona had allowed us to move into hers along with our two kids and a cat. She had a way of taking in stray children and making them feel welcome that I would later immitate. My oldest son developed asthma and the doctors warned that he had to be in a smoke free environment. She insisted that her doctors had told her that smoking was not a factor in asthma, and we had a viscious fight. When my son had a major attack after being around her smoking, she became the greatest defender of not smoking in the house. She was telling the truth, though. Many years earlier, doctors HAD recommended smoking to their patients…and Mona, like many others, fell prey to the misinformation.
Mona adopted her dauters-in-law as her daughters. She loved me as I had never been loved by my own mother, giving me a sense of family and belonging. I’d once sent a hand-made gift to one of my family members…only to be told that it had been thrown "into the garbage where it belonged." When I hesitantly gave Mona my first hand-made gift, she made over it as if it was a treasure. It still hangs on the wall of her house. It was the first of many such gifts, each of which was proudly displayed at family functions.
After my mother’s death from a long illness, Mona faced her own mother’s long illness. Somehow during that time, she passed into the realm of friendship. She wasn’t just my husband’s mother, she was my MIL, and my dear friend. We spent many hours talking about aging and death. "I don’t want to linger like that," she’d complain. "I don’t want to be in some nursing home." I’d laugh. "You won’t be in some home, you’ll be in my home. We’ll cook and do crafts." We’d laugh and she’d say how much fun it would be, but that she’d really rather just die in her sleep, in her own home. She didn’t want to grow old. She complained recently that her friends were dying and she was getting really sick of funerals.
I’ve met people who find religion to be a powerful part of their lives, but Mona was one of those people who their beliefs radiated throughout their lives. No one could come within the range of her smile and not feel the love of God shining through her.
Every holiday, Mona made cookies for each of her children and their families. She packaged each cookie specially. If I had "extra" kids living with me, she’d make cookies for them. She included cookies for work. The Tuesday before Halloween, she called me to say she’d shipped the cookies for the kids. Wednesday she cleaned her kitchen and prepared it for making the cookies for her husband’s work. She was tired, though, so decided to make them on Thursday. Thursday, she got up early, and began her daily routine. At some point, she went back to bed. She’d made a doctor’s appointment for Friday, since she really was feeling very tired.
We got the cookies on Thursday, complete with the usual note to each grand-child. Before we could call and thank her, we received the call that would change all of our lives: Mona had quietly fallen asleep — and died.
At the funeral and the well-attended wake following, there was much discussion about our loss, but in the end it was decided that Heaven is an even better place now. If nothing else, the food will be incredible…because I’m sure Mona is cooking.