I always used to pride myself on packing light when I traveled. No fashion plate, I generally err on the side of leaving that extra dress or pair of shoes behind. But as I prepare to travel abroad with my five-month-old daughter, that conservative thesis has gone out the window. A baby is a fashion plate by necessity, of course, as someone who poops herself on a fairly regular basis. So the suitcases are going to be jam-packed with diapers, formula, pacifiers, clothes, and flammables.
TSA-readers, don’t be alarmed. In terms of the first flammable, I’ll be traveling with a hannukiyah and candles in my bag. I’m not sure how I’ll light them on a transatlantic flight, but they’ll find a home on the ledge of my hotel window in France. And I’m also bringing a yartzheit candle.
My husband’s mother died in December of 1998. It was long before I knew my husband. It was, in many different ways, a lifetime ago. At that time, the man who is now my husband and the love of my life was married to someone else. And I was in law school, dating the man who would become my ex-husband.
On paper, and in what many would consider “real” life, I never got to meet my mother-in-law. I only met my husband over 10 years after her death, and I have seen her only in pictures. In the photos, she is not sick, but rather, alive and vivacious. She has a bright smile like my husband’s, and intelligent eyes that show, even in pictures, the whirring of her thoughts. In almost every photo, she looks like she could be in a magazine, her clothing and understated jewelry perfectly chosen. She’s clearly exactly the engaging person I’ve heard about: the mother who my husband’s high school friends liked so much that they would talk to her on the phone for 10 minutes, forgetting that they were calling to talk to my husband.
There is one picture I love. It’s of of my husband, in elementary school, with his arm around his mother’s shoulder, as his mother looks down at my husband’s younger brother. Her hair, her cap-sleeved sweater, and makeup are all perfect, but not intimidatingly so, just pretty as always. She has that look that we, as all mothers, have all worn: the smile that could veer off into poignant sadness or frustration easily, but with the ever-present denominator of true love.
I have long known that she was a strong, exceptional woman – both because of what I have been told, and because of the mensch my husband is. I was once told that men may make many things, but that it is women who make people: a mother makes her children who and what they are, and who and what they become. I see my mother-in-law every day, in my husband’s quick wit, loyalty, thoughtfulness, and love.
And I also see her in the eyes of my new daughter, who is named after my mother-in-law. Baby G is a sweet, kind, and easy baby who is slow to cry and quick to laugh. She’s a freakishly good baby who slept through the night for the first time at 4 weeks old, which I had thought was impossible. As I tell my husband all the time, I believe that this baby is not only a gift from God, but from his mother, who made sure we got a good one (and who clearly wants us to have another).
So I will make the effort to find a synagogue somewhere in the French countryside so that my husband can say kaddish for her, the woman to whom I am inexpressibly grateful. And we will light the candle in her memory. When we do, I will, as I often do, silently thank her, as I look at my husband and daughter, for all the light and joy she has brought to my life.