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personals [ ]
my mother-in-law

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by [jaw ]

2012-02-21  |     | 

Inés sat at a corner table when we walked in. It was a small coffee shop, less than a block from her home. Her eyes sparkled when she saw us. Cindy tore herself from her mother’s grasp and ran to Inés screaming in her high, four-year-old voice.

“Buelita, buelita!”

Which was a corrupted, child’s version of abuelita, (grandma dearest,) or so I would translate it.

Inés loved all her grandchildren, but our daughter was special to her. Cindy was blond. She was the only blond in the large family. My wife was the tenth of twelve children. They were all olive-skinned and raven-haired. After all, this was Mexico and they were mestizos. I was Canadian and worked in Mexico where I met the spunky, gorgeous, Zita, and managed to convince her to marry me.

Thus a blond daughter.

Inés held her arms outstretched in welcome. They hugged, then Cindy climbed onto her lap, wrapped her arms around her grandmother and gave her a sound, noisy kiss on the cheek. Inés hugged her close.

“Amá,” Zita said, which was her colloquial version of mamá.

Mother and daughter kissed and managed an awkward hug around our daughter. JJ squirmed in my arms and I bent over so that he could get in on the hug-fest. He wrapped his arms around Inés’ neck. That was one cumbersome hug. Inés thought so too and gave a throaty chuckle. I put JJ down and leaned over to kiss my mother-in-law’s cheek.

Zita ordered Mexican style coffee for herself and hot chocolate for the kids. I ordered my coffee black, which stunned the waitress. She asked me if I was sure three times. Inés smiled, she was accustomed to this oddity of mine.

“Do you want another coffee doña Inés?” I asked while we were ordering ours.

“I do believe I shall.”

She however, asked for hers Mexican style, two sugars and condensed milk, too sweet and creamy me.

She leaned over and ran her hands through JJ’s hair, then gave me an odd look.

“Chago,” she began, “I don’t understand something. Why do you call Johnathan JJ?”

Except, it came out sounding more like yay yay, the J sound does not exist in Spanish.

Zita laughed, I chuckled.

“Oh doña Inés,” I said, “I thought you knew. His name is James Johnathan, in English the first letter is J and so his nickname is the first letters of his names. It is not uncommon in English speaking countries.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, well now it makes sense. I’ve been calling him that for two years now and didn’t understand why.”


We chatted. I loved my mother-in-law as if she was my mother. I was far from my family, but her house felt like a second home. Though it was different from the two by six house I was raised in, it was infused with love and caring.

“Chagito,” Zita began. Her grin was infectious. “Why don’t we take everyone to El Nacimiento?”


“Well, as many as will fit in the car. Don Fernando has a pick-up truck, he might be willing to go along.”

Inés smiled at the suggestion.


Our overflowing car and the pick-up arrived at the Nacimiento. People jumped from the pick-up and dove from the car. It was glorious to swim in the small lake in the searing heat of the Mexican summer.


It was spring, or as close as we came to it here on the Gulf of Mexico. We were once again with Inés in her favourite coffee shop, a block from her house. By the time we finished our coffee it was lunchtime. Inés invited us home but Zita and I had other plans.

“No amá,” Zita explained, “we want to take you out for lunch.”

Inés beamed. “That would be lovely.”

After a short stop to pick up Mundo, my father-in-law, we took them to a restaurant on the other side of town. She was delighted when we pulled into the tiny parking lot. This was her favourite place to eat. Inés loved hamburgers and they made the best.

These were not the same as hamburgers in Canada or the States, though they were similar. The bun was the first difference you would notice. Traditional Mexican breads have a studier texture than what we Canadians are used to, not so light, and fluffy. Then there was the patty, which was two and a half times thicker than our patties. There was no mustard, but the mayonnaise was spiked with limejuice. Lettuce, onion, and pickled jalapeños completed the toppings. It was not my preferred lunch, but Inés was ecstatic, which was of course why we were here.

Her and the kids. JJ pounded the tray of the highchair with persistent glee.

“Guesa, guesa,” he cried. Baby talk for hamburguesa, which I don’t think I need to translate.

We were served our hamburgers, which came with inordinate amounts of fries. Even I, the largest eater of the bunch couldn’t manage them all.

We were outside under an umbrella. The weather was perfect. It was February, the drizzly days of winter were over and the temperature was a comfortable 75° F here in the shade.

The ladies chatted. Inés filled us in on the latest neighbourhood gossip, and how the other family members were. Two of her children lived in Tampico, one hundred and eighty kilometres southeast of the small city of Mante where we lived. She had another daughter in Victoria, the state capital.

She told that us that Pepe built a house for he and Beba. Pepe was a bricklayer, who owned his own company. “Pepe is a hard worker,” Inés reminded us.

Which was true. The word mañana was not invented for him. I enjoyed listening to the family news, who was pregnant, who was doing well in their job, how the grandchildren were faring at school. With my family thousands of kilometres away, it was good to have relatives close by. Not that there were not disagreements, they were a family of Latinos and fiery tempers were natural.

I knew, I lived with one.

After lunch, we took Inés home, then got out to say hello to the rest of the family. Armando was two years older than Zita and lived in the old house, Mundo built when he and Inés were first married. It was constructed with six poles, three on each side, woven with sticks and packed with mud. The roof was thatched with palm leaves, but it had a concrete floor and electricity.

Armando had a young bride, a pretty thing I opined. I shook her hand. It was a limp greeting, touching a warm cadaver, a Mexican custom. My two youngest sisters-in-law greeted me in the same fashion, and then scurried to haul JJ and Cindy out of the car.

We stayed for half an hour, but needed to do some shopping.

“Leave the children with us,” Inés insisted, “the girls and I will take care of them while you buy your groceries. Take a little extra time if you like.”

“Are you sure, amá?”

“Of course,” Inés replied, my sisters-in-law nodded with great smiles. Cindy and JJ were favourites with them too. Both our children had my pale skin, which I thought a shame. I loved my wife’s olive complexion.


Zita and I took more time than we would have with two children in tow, and by the time we’d finished grocery shopping and wandering around in the Market, we were hungry and decided to have supper.


By Mexican custom, supper was a light meal, the heavy meal was during the siesta between one and three in the afternoon.

When we got back to my mother and father-in-law’s house, it was seven thirty and the kid’s faces were covered with broad smiles and smeared with chocolate. Zita frowned at her mother. I smiled, but not too widely, then winked at Inés.

Mothers-in-law are to be worshipped for the wonders they manage... many times over, but eschewed for the way they manage to spoil grandchildren.


Wednesday when I got home from work at seven, Inés sat at the kitchen table with Zita. They both had oversized mugs before them. I could smell the aroma of camomile.

Cindy was on the glazed tile floor of the immense kitchen with a pair of dolls, who appeared to be having a conversation. JJ had his favourite toy car, which he wound up by pushing it across the floor a few times. When he released it, the car did a wheelie, and soared across the room until it smashed into the wall. He pushed himself up and toddled over to it at top speed. Cindy looked up and saw me.

“Apá,” she cried. She jumped up, ran over to me, and wrapped herself around my leg. Within moments, I had a child in each arm, and received warm, wet, noisy kisses from both. It was a competition to see who could make the loudest kissing noise. I did manage to peck both my wife and mother-in-law’s cheeks while the two leaches held on.

“You’re so good with the children,” Inés told me. “Most Mexican men are not like that.”

“They don’t cook either,” Zita gave her mom a smug smile.

I shrugged. “Men who don’t spend time with their kids lose out on a lot. And me, I like to cook.”

"Speaking of which,” Inés gave me a grin. "Mundo would love for you to make your stuffed baked potatoes this weekend if you can find some time.”

I looked to Zita with raised brows. She winked and nodded her agreement to the plan. She loved to spend time with the family, in particular her mom.

“Saturday?” I asked.

“Saturday would be fine,” Zita said, with a glance at her mother.

“That’s perfect,” Inés replied.

“Why don’t Zita, the kids and I meet you at the café for coffee at eleven, then we can go to your place and I can prepare everything.”

“I’ll have Mundo pick up the potatoes and things.”

“Nonsense,” I said.

Zita backed me up. “No amá, Chago and I will stop by the market on our way to the coffee shop, Saturday morning.

With two near grown girls at home and a daughter-in-law to look after Mundo, Inés stayed and ate a light supper with us, then I drove her home while Zita prepared the children for bed.


“Excuse me Chago,” Inés said as I drove her in our new, 1982 Chevy Cavalier to take her home. “You are white, and blonde as can be, and though you speak Spanish as a native, you are Canadian.”

I nodded agreement to the truth.

She continued. “Why do we call you Chago?”

I gave her a wicked grin. “Because it is the diminutive form of Santiago.”

She gave me the grandfather of all harrumphs. “Bastard, explain yourself to a stupid mestiza.”

“Ignorant perhaps,” I replied, “stupid never.”

She slapped my arm as I drove. We smiled.

“Santiago is the translation of James, my name in English.”

“Yames Yohnathan,” she murmured, mispronouncing my son’s name as only a Latina could.

“Yay, yay,” she whispered.


“Time to go,” Zita informed me in a tizzied frenzy. Our kids were uncooperative. Two and four-year-olds tend to be, in particular at nine in the morning. This bothered Zita in an un-Latina-like fashion. I enjoyed her hysteria, though I managed to seem to co-operate. She did figure it out after a few minutes.

“Hijo de tu mamá,” she cursed me.

Though a strong profanity, it is not vile, a light version of ‘you son-of-a bitch,’ is the way I thought of it.

“Take your son, and put his shoes on.”

She said son, as if it were the most vile curse word in the language.

I laughed and did as I was told. I sat him on my lap, and when he began to kick, I told him a firm no, and shook his tiny hand to get his attention. He stopped squirming and I slipped his shoes on and tied the laces.

Zita scowled at the ease with which I curbed our son’s enthusiasm.

“Hijo de tu mama,” she murmured again, sotto voce.


It was nine-thirty by the time we got to the market. I loved the market in Mante. Canada had nothing to compare at the time. It took up an entire city block, and all under one roof you could find clothing, vegetables, fruit, meat, and groceries in addition to the food stalls which served Mexican favourites.

Zita pushed the stroller with JJ and commanded Cindy to hang on to it while I did the shopping. I did a lot of the grocery shopping and always when I cooked.

Our daughter was a magnet, and ladies from all over swarmed to touched her blond locks. It never ceased to amaze me, and Zita got huffy a few times when women did not believe that she was the mother. I proved them wrong with several French kisses, which brought a smile to my wife’s face and shock to any number of the disbelieving ladies. Some I was sure, thought that I’d kissed the nanny.

I would make the stuffed potatoes as requested, but do the rest of the midday meal as well. Inés knew that, but was too polite to suggest it. In fact, I knew that she would complain and insist on helping, but I would be firm and Minerva or Leticia could help. Inés would be in heaven with a break from the cooking, and be able to spend the time with her grandchildren. I smiled to myself at the thought.

“You’re up to something,” Zita narrowed her eyes at me.

I gave her a grin. “Yes, I’m going to give you’re mom a break from cooking, and make ‘Butter Chicken,’ with ‘East Indian’ style rice. They’re going to love it.

Zita had eaten my Indian cooking and was impressed. She gave me a ghost of a smile. I patted her bottom, which incensed her. She hated that I do that in public, which I knew of course. That was what really pissed her off that I knew she hated it but did it anyway.

We packed the groceries into the car, loaded the kids into their car seats, and went to meet Inés for coffee. Zita growled at me the whole trip.


Inés was in her usual corner seat when we arrived. She looked pensive until she saw us. She brightened, received hugs and kisses from grandchildren, daughter, and son-in-law, then we ordered coffee.

I looked at Zita, she frowned. We’d both noticed Inés’ thoughtful look when we entered. Zita saw everything, I was more obtuse.

“¿Que pasa amá?” Zita asked what was going on.

“Nothing,” Inés lied.

I shook my head. “No one in this world loves you more than we do. Please tell us.”

Inés gave a great sigh. “Minne ran off with a boy.... eloped.”

I rolled my eyes. “Mamá Ines,” I said with the affectionate term that her grandchildren used. “Can you wonder why? With the expense a boy is expected to put out for a traditional wedding, they probably couldn’t afford it.
I’ll speak to them.”

Zita smiled and hugged me. The family honour was at stake. A great amount of stupidity I thought. What can a Canadian know?


To me, a traditional Mexican wedding was cheap. That was not the norm, I knew, and many young couples chose to elope rather than marry through the church and have the large, required, reception.


Minerva and her beaux were not hard to find. In spite of her protests, I hugged her, and my brand-new brother-in-law.

“You must marry in the church and have a proper reception,” I said without preamble.

“We can’t afford it,” Minerva insisted.

“I know,” I consoled her. “Zita and I will pay for it.”

“That’s too much,” she began to cry.

“No,” I hugged her tight, “it’s not enough.”

She beat my shoulders with listless fists.


We ignored the fact they had lived together for two weeks and it was a white wedding. She was almost as beautiful a bride as my Zita. She and her new husband lived but a few blocks from us, and at the first opportunity, I used my influence to have him hired at the Sugar Refinery.

I do not run the refinery, rather work for the conglomerate that owns eight local ones. I am a consultant with both an engineering and business background. I was God to the ‘gerente,’ (manager), and my word was gospel.
It felt good to help family.


“Mundo is not well,” Inés confessed to Zita and I in private.

“What’s wrong?” Zita asked in a frenzied tone.

“He drank too much and smoked too much.”

“Que dios se coge,” Zita commanded. “Let God fuck himself.”

I hid my chuckle.

Mundo... Raymundo, died six months later.


I was the older of two children and my parents were young. Inés was many years older than my mother. The time came for her to die.

My Cindy was twenty-seven, married, with one daughter. We all ran to Inés’s side.

If I had believed in a God, I would have cursed him or her. This woman was an amazing person and deserved to live for a century or more.

Wood smoke killed her, for she preferred to cook her beans with firewood. She died of emphysema.


Zita smiled. I winked at her as I sipped on my black coffee. Her hair, once midnight black, was layered with gray. There was an unmistakable mischievousness in her smile.

“You can be a bitch,” I told her.

“But you love me all the same.”

I chuckled. “Of course.”

“Mamá Inés, died two years ago next month, I would like to hold a memorial”

“That would be marvelous.”


After the service, we gathered at the coffee shop Inés so loved. Zita hugged the grandchildren and I, close.

I loved them all, and now understood Inés’ love of her grandbabies.

They were our future.

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