a love letter to my mother in law

a love letter to my mother in law

This month we’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with a series of love letters. Next up is Daisy Florin, whose debut novel, My Last Innocent Year, comes out tomorrow.

Two months after my mother died, I got engaged. The timing was bittersweet. While I was happy to be marrying the man I loved, a man my mother had loved, I also felt tremendous loss.

Not that I acknowledged it at the time. Instead, I dove into wedding preparations, determined to outrun my grief. When my father suggested shortly after my engagement that perhaps Ken and I shouldn’t have such a big wedding considering the circumstances, I was less than receptive. I had already lost so much, I told him, and scaling back on what promised to be a happy occasion was not something I wanted to consider. (I did not say it this nicely.) The wedding was on.

People came out of the woodwork to help me. A family friend threw an engagement party. My aunts and cousin hosted a bridal shower. The mother of a friend held a tea in my honor. And when it was time to go dress shopping, I had my future mother-in-law, Annette.

Let me stop here to say if you ever need to go fancy dress shopping in the aftermath of a personal loss, I highly recommend Annette.

Annette isn’t shy about going into the dressing room and helping you zip, strap or tug. She doesn’t look away as you wrestle with awkward undergarments. She is more than happy to track down a saleswoman or a size or negotiate a price. And her opinion, while given with love, is honest: if she tells you look good, you know you do. If you don’t — well, she’ll let you know that, too.

In the months before my wedding, Annette watched me try on dozens of dresses at shops across the tristate area, from Soho boutiques to Long Island strip mall stores. While everyone else was tiptoeing around me making sure I was okay, Annette headed straight into the dressing room of Kleinfeld and adjusted my brassiere.

If she ever felt uncomfortable taking on a role that perhaps should have been my mother’s, she didn’t show it. And to be honest, I didn’t have a clear sense of how my mother would have felt about my wedding — not my getting married but the wedding. I’d never been to a wedding with my mother, and weddings, mine included, were not something we ever discussed, even in the abstract. My parents got married in 1969 in Sweden, where my mother was born, at the Swedish equivalent of city hall. The ceremony, which according to my father took five minutes in two languages, was followed by a dinner for less than a dozen people. My mother wore a lace mini dress she had made herself. So, it’s hard to know what she would have made of my New York City wedding, with bridesmaids, a raw bar and a six-piece band.

But Annette was unabashedly thrilled about it all and, as the mother of three sons, particularly delighted to go dress shopping with me. When she got married in 1959, she’d had to rent her wedding dress because she didn’t have enough money to buy it. Before the wedding was even over, the woman from the dress shop was waiting to take it back, like a fairy tale villain.

I was happy to have her along for the ride. Annette was endlessly upbeat, never sad or gloomy, never asked me, “What would your mother have thought of this one?” I couldn’t have handled it if she had. If she thought there was anything strange about having a big wedding so soon after my mother’s death — and I don’t for a minute think she did — she never said. And if she suspected I might be avoiding my grief by focusing on necklines and bustles, she gave me full permission to do so. As an added bonus, she brought no complicated mother-daughter body issues into the dressing room with her. She thought I was lovely in every possible way and told me so, repeatedly.

Annette also taught me something about how to move in the world. A few months into our search, I made a deposit at a store on Long Island for an ivory dress with an illusion neckline. But when we got back to Annette’s house, I started having second thoughts.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m not sure about the dress,” I said, quietly panicking.

She picked up the phone and calmly punched the keypad. “This is Annette Florin,” she said as though they’d been expecting her call. Then she told them I had changed my mind about the dress and would they kindly cancel the order. And they did.

I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. The idea that you could just say what you wanted, or didn’t want, with no explanation or apology attached? It was a revelation. That’s it? I thought. You can just do that? Yeah. You can just do that.

I finally found my dress at a boutique in Soho, a white A-line gown with a beaded bodice and spaghetti straps. I bought everything at that shop: the shoes, veil, stockings, merry widow and — wait for it — tiara. During one of the final fittings, Annette thought something was missing.

“Don’t laugh,” she said, “but what about gloves?”

The saleswoman left and returned with a pair of elbow-length white gloves. I was skeptical, but wouldn’t you know? They were perfect.

“How much are they?” I asked, calculating how much this finishing touch would cost.

From her perch on the divan, Annette motioned to the saleswoman and said, in a stage whisper, “I think it’s gift time.” (Translation: “This girl has spent a fortune in your store. How about throwing in the gloves for free?”) The saleswoman paused for a moment, then nodded and smiled. And just like that, the gloves, which retailed for $80, were mine.

I was stunned. Gift time? I would never in a million years have asked for the gloves as a gift, but then again, I probably would have walked down the aisle in the dress with the illusion neckline. I might have worried the saleswoman would think I was tacky, or that she would say no or, God forbid, not like me. But Annette had a way of asking for things that made you want to say yes, and anyway, she didn’t mind what the saleswoman thought about her. She was doing it for me.

Ken and I got married almost a year to the day after my mother died. I had ignored my father’s admittedly reasonable advice to not make a big deal about my wedding and done the exact opposite: a big deal had been made. As I greeted my 100-plus guests, I felt exposed and worried I had made a mistake. Maybe this was what my father had wanted to protect me from. But then I saw Annette, shimmering like a disco ball in a silver off-the-shoulder gown, and realized I didn’t have to apologize for my wedding or my grief or anything else for that matter. I didn’t have to compound my loss by having a sad or downbeat wedding. I could in fact do whatever the hell I wanted — buy the dress, send it back, have a slightly over-the-top wedding, or not. I’d have a lifetime to miss my mother. It didn’t have to start that night.

As I twirled around the dance floor in my white taffeta gown (and elbow-length gloves), it became clear that life would be a series of events like this, the bitter mixed with the sweet, beginnings and endings superimposed on each other like an overexposed photograph. Yes, I had lost something, but I had gained something, too — not just a husband but an understanding that there were people willing to pick me up when I was hurt, including and especially Annette who, it turned out, was the real gift.

Daisy Florin is a writer who lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. She is a recipient of the 2016 Kathryn Gurfein Writing Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence College and was a 2019–2020 fellow in the BookEnds novel revision fellowship. Her novel, My Last Innocent Year, comes out this week.

P.S. 11 wedding dos and don’ts, and what it’s like to meet the in-laws.

(Photo by Melissa Milis Photography/Stocksy.)