Some guy once told me that to see how your lover will age, look at her mother. So I anticipated that day in a western Michigan tourist town when I would meet Irene, Sheri’s mother, and see into my future.
Did Irene look forward to meeting me, this man, younger than some of her grandchildren yet dating her daughter? Who knows? But if anything concerned her she hid it on that autumn day. Older than my grandmother, she stood straight and handsome, graced with a manner of quiet assurance that arose as much, it seemed, from her Bible-reading and prayer as it did from her own character. She’d brought her new beau along, a rascally fellow named Claus who’d made his move some five years after Sheri’s father had died.
Claus liked puns and corny jokes, and, in my memory, stood shorter than my future mother-in-law, with whisps of white hair, skinny shoulders and a belly like a basketball. We followed them to a restaurant for lunch, Claus driving a monstrous Detroit-made sedan, and I pushed our 4-cylinder rental to keep up with him. He challenged yellow lights and shifted lanes without warning. In our car, Sheri envisioned Claus at the wheel during the traffic accident that would kill her mother. I know Sheri sometimes felt ill at ease with Claus because she worried he would do something to hurt Sheri's mom.
It’s hard to watch people dear to you turn their heart over to a person you don’t know – a person who might hurt them because that other person is tattooed, or plays in a punk band, or works on Wall Street, or is Catholic, or drives too fast, or is seventeen years younger.
Irene and Claus married soon after I met them. And then, a little more than a year after that, he died – in bed. And Irene did hurt, after all.
We visited her at her apartment home in Grand Rapids the following Christmas – our first as a married couple – and I remember the great comfort I felt sitting on her couch as we talked about God and the spiritual life, about my Catholic upbringing, about family. We never discussed my age in relation to Sheri’s. I suppose she might have worried that I, so much younger, would break her daughter’s heart. But I like to think she recognized love and kindness and had faith in her daughter and in me.
Sheri’s mother died the next year. That was fifteen years ago. Recently, we had dinner with another HimPlus couple. He told us that he is estranged from his family because they didn’t approve of his marriage to an older woman. I felt sad hearing that, but also fortunate that Irene had not condemned her daughter because of me. When I think of my mother-in-law now, it’s not only because I'm thinking how Sheri might age. It’s also to imagine how I might change with the years. I’d like to grow into someone like Irene, who knows to keep private counsel in the face of what looks like strange love, because in the end all love is strange, and who knows to be glad for it.