The French forms for mother- and others-in-law are romantic rather than descriptive: belle-mère, beau-père, belle-fille, beau-fils. Isn’t it funny how the French see beauty where we see legal relationships?
Beauty is an appropriate beginning for a memoir about my mother-in-law. It was a big part of her life, and also defined her in many ways.
The first time I met my future belle-mère, I was in awe. It was at my apartment in Toronto, where her son had virtually declared domicile for the past several months. The living arrangements were no big deal: after all, they were French. But I knew somehow that our meeting was a test and was far from sure that I’d pass muster.
She was an attractive if somewhat daunting-looking woman: a sweep of neatly coiffed black hair with a silver streak, tanned face with precisely rouged lips, large lunettes, fur coat, Louis Vuitton bag and slim ankles rising above elegant heels. Although she stood barely five feet tall, she looked every inch a tough customer.
To be fair: she had every reason to hate me.
I was foreign, older by several years, unable to speak more than a few words of French – and about to marry her only son. Reasons enough for most women to take an instant dislike to their future daughter-in-law.
Instead we became allies. Different as we were, we discovered the only common ground we needed: her son. Turns out whatever made him happy, made her happy. That worked for me.
And as with so many things French, the facade was mostly for show. Contrary to appearances, there was little of the formidable grande dame in my belle-mère. She was entirely down to earth – terre-à-terre as they say here – and all the airs of sophistication she gave herself with the fancy clothes and makeup could not change that.
She was called Nicole, and grew up as the eldest daughter of une famille nombreuse in Normandy. They had a roof over their heads and food on the table but not much else – like most families in wartime France, they struggled. Her father worked for the EDF-GDF (electric and gas utility) and her mother cooked and cleaned and raised six children (plus one foster daughter).
When my husband’s grandmother, Mémé, died and the house in Normandy was sold, belle-mère recovered the simple plaque that had graced their home for so many years, and displayed it proudly in her own. It read: Petite est la maison, grand est notre coeur (Small is our home, great is our heart). It makes a fitting epitaph for their family.
When Nicole married my beau-père, Raymond, in the early sixties, they also struggled. Work was their ticket to a better life. They found jobs in Paris and settled there; after a few tough years they landed jobs with the airlines and thus began a more bountiful period. My father-in-law eventually worked his way up from chef de cuisine to manage catering operations for Air France.
Their only son was born in those 60s boom years. They bought a first apartment, then a house, then moved to a nicer suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Having only one child was how my mother-in-law made sure she had an easier life than her own mother had. They were able to send their son to private school, travel and fill their home with souvenirs from around the world.
Belle-mère had two faces: one for the world, which she put on early in the day, and another for when she was ‘à l’aise’ – as early in the evening as decency permitted. Her daytime face was full hair and make-up, a coordinated and accessorized outfit freshly washed and ironed every day of the week; the evening face was beauty cream and loungewear.
In our early married life we lived in Toronto, and my beaux-parents were able to make frequent trips overseas courtesy of Air France. During one of those trips, belle-mère discovered the magic of false nails and became an instant fan (her own nails being one of her less-than-perfect features). For years the famous faux ongles were part of her toilette, along with her signature red lipstick and jet-black hair. They did have an unfortunate tendency to fall off. Family lore included finding bits of them in odd places like the freezer.
She struggled to remain slim and was frequently ‘au regime’. During her dieting phases she looked and felt well but suffered from not being able to indulge in her preferred high-calorie treats. True daughter of Normandy, she had a particular weakness for camembert. She was a yo-yo dieter who loved to eat; the bouts of slimming staved off the worst excesses and, along with modest exercise, kept her weight gain at bay. But they starved her soul.
She did not drink wine or any alcohol, other than the occasional glass of champagne. I was never sure whether this was a refusal to follow in the footsteps of other family members (her father, known to all as Pépé, had enjoyed a tipple), or simply because she didn’t care for it. In either case, she never commented on my beer consumption, except to remark that I was lucky not to put on weight (which I did, but preferred to exercise off rather than diet).
Belle-mère loved to shop. She fell in love with the shopping in Toronto, especially the many off-label boutiques and underground shopping pedestrian concourses that allow you to circulate through the city without going outside. She inevitably found a French-speaking salesperson who was delighted to help her and returned home with bags brimming.
She especially loved the comfortable, elegant synthetics she found in North America and could wear with her usual style while enjoying the forgiving stretch waistlines. She always wore new and fashionable outfits, accessorized with a scarf or piece of costume jewelry. She had a weakness for flashy accessories but never considered spending a lot of money on the real thing. She confessed that she preferred what she called ‘toc’ (fake or costume jewelery) as she’d rather buy something new often than save up for the real deal. In fact, the only real jewels and designer pieces she owned were gifts or hand-me-downs.
She didn’t speak a word of English, although she had a talent or sort of antenna for deciphering our conversation. Once she asked my husband outright if we were talking about her when she decoded ‘your mother’ from my words. I learned to keep my comments to myself.
Like a cat, she was incredibly fastidious about her person and appearances in general while rather less of a clean freak around the house. Beau-père did most of the cooking and a good deal of the cleaning. Her domain was decorative. This included the laundry, wardrobe selection, social schedule, etc. She made the decisions about home decorating – painting, wallpapering, even upholstering – which were then brilliantly executed by my beau-père.
She didn’t smile all the time (no French person does) but she had a good sense of humor and frequently fell into fits of giggles, particularly over some family member’s embarrassing behavior or one of beau-père’s frequent practical jokes.
In one of life’s little synchronicities, she and beau-père shared the exact same wedding anniversary as my parents; and although she was considerably younger than my own mother, she had almost the same birthday.
Belle-mère was thrilled when we decided to settle in France. She graciously opened the doors of their home when we moved our newly expanded family from Canada; we stayed with my in-laws for several months while looking for jobs and a place to live. Despite their good will, living in close quarters with our two French bulldogs, two-year-old toddler and another child soon on the way tested everyone’s patience. The house, while a decent size by French standards, felt cramped.
A few months later we found jobs that enabled us to move away from over-priced, over-populated Paris; Lyon was close enough for them to visit often and take their grandchildren on frequent vacations. A few years later, the airlines began restructuring which enabled both my in-laws to take early retirement. They sold the house in Paris and moved to Lyon.
We had our moments, belle-mère and I. As relationships with mothers-in-law go, ours was fairly amicable but inevitably there were tensions. She was hypersensitive and couldn’t deal with conflict; she just wanted everyone to be happy. I come from a family where conflict is ever-present and volubly expressed, which didn’t always go over well.
She was indulgent with her petits-enfants, and didn’t understand when I would discipline them. Our son’s hijinks around bedtime were notorious, and if allowed he would carry on for hours. I was intractable. Bedtime was 8:30, lights out, no nonsense. She found me harsh.
Bringing up our kids to be bilingual meant I only spoke English to them, which she found frustrating at times. Once, when they had taken their grandson for a few days, she called in a panic to ask what he meant when he cried and demanded something to drink. They put him on the phone and I heard him cry, ‘Juice in it, juice in it’. I explained that I always filled his sip-cup with half orange juice, half water.
Becoming a grandmother was one of her life’s greatest joys. It took us a few years: I wasn’t sure I wanted kids (hence the bulldogs, which were practice.) But she nagged us endlessly to start a family, saying not to worry, she would look after the grandchildren anytime. She lived up to that promise.
She showered her petits-enfants with love and was generous to a fault. Sometimes this drove me crazy; she would spoil them with too many treats, dress them up like dolls and then take them out for la promenade at the park, where she would inevitably meet people and come back bubbling with stories and photos…while the children were like piles électriques.
La photo was her passion. She loved these souvenirs of happy times and would insist on taking far more than any of us had patience for. Beau-père was the official photographer and was always faithful to his job: “One more please,” he would say in English, as we attempted to put on happy faces for the camera. Belle-mère always managed to shine when the rest of us were past our prime. She organized the photos neatly into albums while mine still remain piled in boxes.
Later, she went digital and did it all on an iPad, trying her son and grandson’s patience when something didn’t work. She was an early adopter of all of the social channels that enabled sharing and engaging with family and friends. But digital belle-mère could be dangerous….sometimes it was just too much of a good thing.
Belle-mère also struggled with anxiety throughout her life. She was an insomniac who worried incessantly about her own health and the well-being of her loved ones. She believed that modern medicine offered a pill for every problem and regularly visited her family doctor to demand the latest drug du jour. She knew that I had also suffered from bouts of angoisse at different points in my life and seemed almost disappointed when I managed to put these fears behind me. I think she enjoyed the company.
When the children graduated and left home my mother-in-law seemed to feel like her life had lost some sense of purpose. My husband and I moved away from Lyon to be closer to our jobs; it was only a couple of hours’ drive but far enough that she felt abandoned. Although they had a large circle of friends – she was a natural when it came to meeting people and socializing – she became increasingly dissatisfied with her life, and talked about moving again, perhaps somewhere south or closer to her sister in Nice. She stopped dieting, put on weight and although she still gussied up on a daily basis, I felt in recent months that there had been a shift towards old age.
My belle-mère surprised us all when, just a few days before Christmas, her heart stopped. She was 71.
She is sadly missed and fondly remembered.