By Maria Lagalante Schulz
There’s a saying that your family members are the people you are with by chance but your friends are the people you are with by choice. When it comes to in-laws, sometimes you get lucky and it’s a little bit of both.
My brothers all married to wonderful people that I’m happy to be related to. They are all good women and I love them for their quirky senses of humor, their willingness to listen to us tell the same stories over and over again (my husband is one of the long-time sufferers) and the way they build my brothers up when the outside world brings them down. They are all great people and although I didn’t choose them, I know that luck was on my side when they came into my life.
Of course, when you say the phrase “Mother-in-Law” you conjure up all sorts of images. It always reminds me of Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners screaming: “Your mother is a BLABBERMOUTH!” Most of the world expects you to hate your mother-in-law. But sometimes, again, you get lucky.
I have a wonderful mother-in-law who has always been there to help me with my two girls. My brother, Tony, has a mother-in-law who has always been an involved and important part of his children’s lives. My brother Louie really hit the mother-in-law jackpot, though—because his mother-in-law was someone who thought my brother was the second coming of Christ.
Helen was small, with long black hair and a hearty laugh. She had beautiful eyes and you could see in them that she thought my brother was a genius, her daughters were fantastic, and her grandchildren were gifts from God. It was refreshing to see someone who loved her children and their spouses with such ardent fervor.
Helen was no saint. She liked to tell me stories about her three children, a son named George, her older daughter Christine (who married my brother) and her younger daughter Maria. Over tea and cake, she told me about taking her three kids out for studio portraits when they were little.
“Jim [her now ex-husband] got mad when he saw how much I spent on portraits of Georgie, so I hid them when I took Georgie and Christine out for their photos,” she explained.
“So why are there so many pictures of Maria as a baby?” Christine asked.
Helen shrugged. “Ah, by then we weren’t getting along, so I did whatever I wanted!”
Helen was a good soul who felt sorry for my mother when my father bought a Hyundai with a stick shift, and my mother could not learn how to drive it.
“I’ll teach you,” Helen said, sure that with patience she could teach my mother anything.
I watched them get into the car in our driveway, and saw Helen point out the stick shift, the clutch, and signal how to get the car started. She did it again, at least a dozen times, while my mother looked on, wide-eyed. I couldn’t hear what Helen was saying, but she was getting that look in her eyes that my father used to get when he was teaching me how to do scales on the trumpet and I messed them up for the millionth time. I was afraid that Helen would get mad, until I heard shrieks of laughter coming from inside the car.
Two hours later, the car never moved, but my mother and Helen had done a whole lot of laughing. They came through the front door in search of lunch.
“How did it go?” I asked.
My mother and Helen looked at one another and burst into more peals of laughter.
“It didn’t go at all,” Helen replied.
“You want me to make you a sandwich? Then you can try again,” I said, because my mother really did want to learn, and I figured Helen was the only one patient enough to teach her.
Helen and Mom just shrugged. “I’ll get a ride or walk,” my mother said.
“I can drive you sometimes,” Helen replied.
Satisfied, they went into the kitchen and fixed some lunch.
One of my favorite memories of all time involves Tom Jones, all of my brothers, some of my sisters-in-law, Uncle Don, my mother, and Helen.
We went to the Westbury Music Fair that night, excited as could be to see Tom Jones LIVE. I had been enjoying Tom Jones since I was barely old enough to walk. I thought his television show was to die for, and Chris and I often acted out the “tied-to-the-train-tracks” segment.
A new Tom Jones album warranted as much joy in our little household as a brand new Beatles album. I can still recall singing and crying over The Green Green Grass of Home.
So of course, going to see him LIVE was our destiny. I knew my family would be into it, and didn’t doubt that Uncle Don would have to contain himself from jumping up and dancing the night away. I knew my mother would sing her heart out from beginning to end. But what about Helen?
“Aren’t they sweet?” Helen said to Christine, as I took my brother Louie’s hand in mine and walked towards the theater. “You’re such a nice family.”
“Make sure you’ve got your underwear handy,” Louie said to her, as she swatted at him and laughed.
We howled with laughter as others (not Helen) threw their panties on stage, as Tom Jones strutted and sashayed, and as the band played all the songs we’d come to love way back in the 70s. When TJ broke into “Delilah,” my brothers, sisters-in-law, and I sang along, saying “Why, Why, WHY Delilah?” I looked back over my shoulder and saw Helen, swinging and swaying, arms linked with the rest of my crazy family.
If there was ever any doubt that she was one of us, it was gone. She had asked the eternal question (why, Delilah?) and didn’t seem at all disturbed by Tom Jones’s lurid hip action during “What’s New, Pussycat?”
Helen was a keeper.
As the years passed, Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer. For more than a decade and a half, she fought it off, and although her long hair was gone, she was still beautiful.
Helen had a funny way of approaching her illness. Once, over Easter dinner at her daughter’s house, she described her treatments and what she thought about them.
“It’s very annoying,” she said, as we munched on ham. “I go to my treatments and everyone else is as skinny as can be. I must be the only cancer patient I ever met that’s still fat!”
Christmas Eve came and went, and year after year, I saw Helen at my brother Joey’s house. We would talk about the after life, how much Helen looked forward to seeing George again (her son, who died in 1987) and about our hopes and dreams for the future.
She liked that I believed in an after life and didn’t seem at all worried about talking about death with her. “I’ll come visit you some time,” she said, and we both laughed.
At the end of the night, Helen would kiss me and say with a twinkle in her eyes, “I’ll see you next year.”
One of the last times she said that to me, she was wearing a Marilyn Monroe-like blonde wig and she leaned on a cane. She must have noticed the look of doubt that flashed in my eyes.
She laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here.”
The following Christmas Eve, Helen grabbed me and gave me a kiss. “See! I told you I’d be here!”
On July 12, 2006, Helen passed away. She had fought breast cancer for many years, and eventually her fight ended. I like to think of her and my mother, driving around in that big Hyundai in the sky.
I bet Helen is driving…and they’re both laughing.
My nephews, Louie and Dan, do something in honor of Helen every year: it’s the Swim Across America. Every year hundreds of swimmers swim across the Long Island Sound to raise money to help in the fight against cancer. Last year, this event included over 770 swimmers and raised over $880,000.
To support Team Lagalante or for or more information, go to: http://www.swimacrossamerica.org/Page.aspx?pid=490&frtid=710
One thing I will always remember about Helen: she loved a party! Here are two wonderful Greek recipes that remind me of her: classically Greek and always good to have around.
Spanakopita: Greek Spinach Pie
Got a funny in-law story or Greek recipe to share? Leave a comment and let all of the Hungry Lifers in on the fun.