Thursday, April 01, 2010


I was at work and I caught a whiff of what smelled like macaroni and cheese. Or maybe it was buttered noodles without the cheese, but in either case it made me think of my mother-in-law.

She passed away 28 years ago this month from pancreatic cancer, when my then-husband and I had been married about five and a half years. She was only 54. For her, the first symptom she had of the disease was itchy shins, an itch that drove her crazy and wouldn't stop. She spent the better part of a year going to the doctor and getting tests that didn't tell them anything, and finally they decided to do exploratory surgery. When they opened her up, they saw the cancer, and it had metastasized.

My husband and I moved back to California from Spokane shortly after she was diagnosed, and less than a year later, after battling through chemotherapy, she breathed her last.

But this isn't about cancer. It's about macaroni.

When I was a kid, my dad was in the Navy, and my mom stayed at home and raised the three of us. We lived in such nautical places as Bainbridge, Maryland, Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, California (with a brief stint in San Francisco while my dad's submarine was in drydocks).

As a Navy wife, my mom served us budget meals. Some of my favorites were:
  • Nalley's chili heated and poured over king-size Fritos in a baking dish, with a little cheese melted on top
  • Mexican cornbread
  • Macaroni & Cheese and hot dogs, especially when my mom sliced the hot dogs and mixed the slices into the M&C like little copper coins
  • Galumkas
  • Shrimp Creole
One time when I was in my twenties, I called up my mom and asked her for the Shrimp Creole recipe, because I had a sudden craving for it (no, I wasn't pregnant at the time). She told me it was just a can of Campbell's Shrimp Creole soup heated up and poured over Minute Rice, and they stopped making that soup a long time before. Oh, the heartbreak!

Some of my least favorite budget meals were:
  • Tuna casserole, though I didn't hate it
  • Anything with lima beans or beets
  • Navy bean soup
I hated navy bean soup so much that I started to dread it when we had ham (which I loved), because I knew that meant the navy bean soup would be next.

But when I met and married my husband and got to know his family better, I learned that my mom had been a budget-meal piker. She was a lightweight compared to my mother-in-law, who had five little mouths to feed, rather than just three.

I don't remember all the other meals my husband and his sisters talked about having to eat when they were little, just the Mother of All Budget Meals: Beans and Noodles. That would be a large can of Pork N Beans (possibly the bargain brand) served next to (not over) noodles. Plain noodles. No sauce. No butter. Just the cooked and drained noodles.

They hated it. As much as I hated navy bean soup. Almost as much as I hated (and still do) beets (ptooey!). And they had to eat it often, because their mom was on a budget.

So when I smelled the macaroni at work, it brought all this to mind and a whole lot more. I wouldn't want your impression of my mother-in-law to be nothing more than beans and noodles, because she was a wonderful woman.

She won me over when we first met, because she championed me over the wishes of her only beloved son, when she chewed him out something fierce for wanting to make a dishonest woman out of me by living in sin. I hadn't said a word to her about it, and certainly not to him (too afraid I'd lose him), even though shacking up was not what I had in mind. But she tore right into him, and that gave me the courage to speak up a little.

He caved, and we decided to get married, and while we were making plans, my then-future mother-in-law started grilling me on religion. She was Catholic, and she wanted to know what my religious beliefs were about baptism. Did we baptize babies?

No, we let children decide for themselves when they're old enough to know what they're doing. Of course, at this time I wasn't going to church and didn't really care about God, and neither did my fiance, but I pulled the answers from my childhood spent attending church every Sunday.

Then my mother-in-law informed me that when we had kids, there was that whole Original Sin thing to worry about, and she was going to see that our babies got baptized, even if she had to do it herself in the bathroom sink.

I told her that was fine with me, if she really needed to do it. But we didn't have our first child until three years after she died, so they remained unbaptized until they were 10 or 11 or something.

After we had been married a year, I invited my in-laws over for Thanksgiving dinner. We had gone to their house the year before, about a month after the wedding. My mother-in-law surprised me by saying it was the first time in over 25 years of marriage that she hadn't cooked on Thanksgiving. I was thrilled, and I still treasure that meal, because it let me give back a little something to a woman who had given of herself for so long.

I'm not going to tell everything I might, but I'll end with the Andy Capp comic strip she kept on her refrigerator the whole time I knew her.

It was Andy's wife, Flo, sneaking into a Bingo game in the first frame, sneaking out of Bingo in the next, then she's in some business-type office at a desk where the man asks, "Name?" and "Flo" is crossed out and "Big Al," my father-in-law's nickname for his wife, is hand-written in. In the last frame the man asks, "Occupation?" and she answers, "Adventuress." That was my mother-in-law to a T.

I'm glad I smelled macaroni today at work.

1 comment:

Bekah said...

Great post...loved peeking into your life!