A quiet nobility

Last night, we got the call we knew was coming, but didn’t ever want to get: Marilyn was gone.

Marilyn was my mother-in-law, mother to Kim, Chris and my wife, Karen, and married to Bill Richardson for over five decades. It’s easy to sum her up by the numbers. Mother of three, grandmother of six, wife of 54 years… but that’s not a fair or accurate assessment.

I met Marilyn back when I was about seventeen. I’d gone to school with her oldest daughter, Kim and had stopped by their house with a friend. I know I met her then, but I have no memory of it.

But if we skip ahead ten more years, that’s when I had started dating Karen, the middle child and Kim’s only sister. I was a cocky ass back in those days–something that hasn’t changed much in the intervening twenty-five years–and I met Marilyn again, for the first time.

I remember a few things about that meeting. Her friendliness, her openness, her immediate acceptance of this gangly, long-haired smartass…even when I found out she didn’t like the word “snot” and I then used it about twenty times. That was the first time I saw the look.

She got this look when someone would rib her about something. She’d set her mouth in a way that was somehow grim and yet smiling all at the same time. Her eyes would dance with a playful light, and the entire thing came together in an enjoy this now, because I’m so gonna get you later look.

She rarely did, but still, the look was delightful and terrifying. Because there was always that question of, what if she actually does get me later?

There was one time however, when she was quite proud of herself. Karen and I were over at her parents’ place and, as usual, I was being a smartass with Marilyn. To be honest, it was something the two of us shared, easily and comfortably. She was always content to be my straight man, and I loved her for it. Anyway, this particular time, I said something to get her goat, and she responded, uncharacteristically, with something like, “You better watch out, mister. I’ll get you for that.” This, of course, accentuated with her sharply pointing finger.

Of course I laughed it off.

We got home, and I got a case of the annoying ahems. This turned into a bit of a cough, and by morning, I had, for the one and only time in my life, a case of laryngitis. I couldn’t speak.

And when Karen called her mother to let her know, Marilyn was delighted, insisting it was her that put the whammy on me. You’ve got to admit, when I’m sassing her, the best revenge would be to steal my voice. She never forgot that, even though it was almost twenty-five years in the past, and she still threatened me with it every so often. And somehow, for all my bluster, it would tend to shut me up.

What I remember most about Marilyn was her mannerisms. I’ve already mentioned the look. I was the recipient of that many, many times. But there was also her true don’t mess with me look, that would come out when she related a story about a teacher being unfair to one of her kids, or any other injustice that she had to deal with. Marilyn never looked like a badass, but she definitely could be. It was obvious that there was a badassery about her. That was one look I never wanted directed my way and, thankfully, it never was.

There was that aforementioned wagging finger. She often told a story, and when she was ready to make her point, or give us the punchline of the story, she’d take a breath, pop the finger and start it with something like, “and you know…”

She also had this expression that she’d pop out as much as she did the finger. It became one of my catchphrases to throw back at her on occasion. She’d say, “Now, I’m not trying to be smart, but…” I loved that expression, and I hope she hears it when I use it going forward.

And then there were the birthdays. Whether it was one of her kids, the spouses of her kids, or her grand kids, she never forgot a birthday, and you could count on a call on your special day with her grinning rendition of the Happy Birthday song, all the way through, and sung loud and proud.

With her in the hospital this year, this was the first birthday since I was 26 that I didn’t hear that song. As delightfully torturous as it was to receive, I missed it horribly, and I’ll miss it until the end of my days.

Again, these are just small glimpses into the who Marilyn was. While she wasn’t always happy, having moods and bad days like the rest of us, she always seemed like a happy person. She enjoyed her kids, she enjoyed her grand kids even more. There were times when I know she didn’t have a bloody clue what they were talking about, but she was always interested, always delighted to spend time with them, and she would talk about it for hours and days later. She was proud of their accomplishments and she never missed a significant event in any of my kids’ lives. She seemed to soak up their youthful energy and radiate it back.

She was godawful horrible on a computer. I can’t tell you how many times I walked her through bringing back an icon that she’d inadvertently deleted, or navigating to a website, or showing her how to delete email. But for all of that, she never gave up, she never stopped trying, because her computer provided a window into the lives of those she loved. And though it could be frustrating for me to go through this, her gratitude afterward always made me feel guilty for ever being frustrated. And again, I’d give anything today to get one of those calls from her.

Even though I came into the picture after all this had passed, I know she was active in the schools her kids went to, and she made her home open to all the friends of her kids. I’m still friends with some of them today and they all have fond, warm memories of her.

And I can’t write about Marilyn without talking about her fifty-four year marriage to her husband, Bill. They’ve had a good marriage. They raised three great kids and watched them all become successful and happy. They’ve seen their grand kids grow up and become good people as well. They’ve traveled, in the last couple of decades heading down to Florida. They usually left in late September, and heading home before Christmas, with the long-running joke that they had to leave the country before my birthday in early October. So, yes, Marilyn could be a smartass when she wanted to be too.

But I’ve watched Bill and Marilyn closely over the past quarter-century. Yes, they’ve had their fights as all married couples do, but when it came right down to it, for all their differences, these two people became one. They had many of the same interests, enjoyed the same things, while still being very much their own people. Marilyn had her Young and the Restless, Bill had his fishing. Marilyn would play Wheel of Fortune on the computer, Bill would putter in his garage. They knew how to be together, and they knew when the other needed their space. But when they were together, they doted on each other, worried about each other, even told stories together, sometimes switching off between one another, sometimes talking over each other in their excitement to get the story out. That always left me wondering exactly who to look at. As far as I’m concerned, they had a wonderful, loving, caring marriage. I can only hope my own is as successful and long-running as theirs.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how Marilyn was doing. And the friend remarked that in all the time we’d known them, about eighteen years, they had never, not once, heard us say anything cross about Marilyn. She’d never said anything catty about anyone, she’d never gotten involved in drama or family politics, she’d never stuck her nose in where it wasn’t welcomed and didn’t belong. She never fought with anyone.

She was nothing less than kind, supportive, warm and loving. She was a woman of quiet nobility and understated support. She was always there if you needed her, but she’d never overstep her bounds.

She was a loving mother and grandmother, a good friend and a devoted wife and she was, in her own way, quietly extraordinary.

She was, on paper, my mother-in-law, but she was so much more to me. She was a friend, a sparring partner, my straight man, my biggest fan and a staunch supporter for anything I attempted. I know there was a couple of times when I inadvertently made her cry and I regret those with all my heart and soul. But there was other times when I made her laugh, sometimes wildly and unabashedly, and for those, I’m truly grateful. I’m glad that somehow, in my own clumsy way, I was able to bring some joy to her life.

She was my mother too, and I loved her. And I always will.

Nobody could ask for more than what you achieved in life, Marilyn: You were well loved. And you will be missed by anyone that knew you.

Goodbye Marilyn.

Bill & Marilyn

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4 thoughts on “A quiet nobility

  1. It’s a beautiful, tender and touching tribute, Tobin. I’m sitting in Starbucks, wiping my eyes. I was sad to hear of her passing, knowing that you and Karen would be entering into a difficult time of mourning. Now, though, it is real to be. I’m so deeply sorry for your loss. Hug Karen for me. I’ll be thinking of your family. Love and healing to all.

  2. What a beautiful celebration of her life, Tobin. Being just under a year removed from losing my own mother, I was like Kevin, wiping sweat out of my eyes.
    If you guys need a distraction, we are just an e-mail away. I know I used every distraction I could find. Still do.

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