what I learned upon losing a beloved
I’m a fairly steady, practical person who had a wonderful albeit irregular relationship with a woman I am proud to be able to call a friend. She and I were very much connected through her son (my husband) and we frequently had long, chatty lunches to discuss everything from Broadway theater and whether the book was better than the adapted play, to intimate worries I had about the children (which she always brushed aside with the reassurance, “They’re amazing kids, and you’re an amazing mom; they’ll be fine”).
Our relationship was unique because it straddled both art/culture and family. She was significantly older than me but we were equals. She respected my intelligence and I respected hers.
I thought I knew my mother in law very well.
Once she had passed, people came out of the woodwork, more than one claiming to be her best friend. I was staggered. The woman had circles of friends who were now bereft, two book clubs that kept her incredible brain occupied, circles of colleagues, co-workers, supervisors, and luminary scholars, all of whom knew her, possibly better than I did — but each in a different way for a different reason and to varying degrees, many of them were missing large parts of her early life story, and even I and her own sons had massive questions about who she was before we knew her. None of her family is living anymore— to me she was a friendly, supportive mother in law, a casual art-friend, and the devoted Nana to my kids.
To others, she was someone else entirely.
I have no idea who she was before starting a family. My knowledge of her begins with my husband’s first memories of her. No one from before that time period outlived her.
I didn’t know the person she was to many of her friends: Harvard interviewer, art docent, valued mentor. She had been weaving these connections for 85 years — thirty years longer than I had known her. She played a role in a summer solstice celebration, in a bridge club, in travel communities. She had a church. She did things that I didn’t know about.
She had been someone to a lot of people.
Then she died peacefully in her sleep.