She ordered a plain hamburger, no bun, no cheese, with a pickle on the side. I glanced at the greasy chicken strips and fries, steaming in front of me, and felt instantly self-conscious. She smiled at me politely, but her arms, at her sides, were rigid, telling. Her watery blue eyes were judging when they scanned over my lip ring and tattooed skin. The mint-colored cashmere sweater hung on her tiny, strong body like a throw-lazily flung over the side of a worn chair. Expensive, but without much thought. Her dry hands shook slightly, and I instantly softened. She was nervous. She was more scared of me than I was of her. I knew then that she was fiercely devoted to her son, and didn’t want to let him go to just anyone. I would have to prove I wasn’t just anyone.
I look back on that first meeting with my ex’s mom with fondness…and regret, because that tiny woman, sitting so resolutely, in a sticky vinyl booth, in Chili’s, would be a woman I’d love intensely and detest vehemently, I just didn’t know it yet. At that time, I merely regarded her as a necessary evil. Someone I’d have to be polite to at holiday gatherings and during awkward phone conversations.
She stayed up far past her bedtime to greet us. Her hair was matted to one side of her head, but her eyes were awake, alert. She had a skip in her step as she brought plate and bowl after plate and bowl of delicious dips, cookies, chips, and huge, plump grapes, and meats and cheeses to the table. She wanted to know everything. How was our trip over? How was school going? Along with the many questions asked and answered, were the ones unspoken: Who are you? Are you the right one for my only child?
In no time at all, visiting Elko and her, grew to be my most cherished moments. Over time, we grew to be friends, comrades, having one very important thing in common: loving the same man. The way she treated me, you would think I were the Queen of England. She regarded me as her only child’s true love and she saw me as beautiful, strong, intelligent, someone with so much potential. Her faith in me is the one driving force that contributed to my present success. Had she not been there, rooting for me, I don’t know where I’d be.
Tears filled my eyes as I drove the dusty highway further and further from my family, my friends, my life. As the miles grew longer from all that I had left, the only thing that kept my foot on the gas was her. Her warm, comfortable, shabby love. It would be okay when I saw her.
Sure enough, she was there, bouncing out to greet us, arms open, eyes smiling. Her boy was home. Her favorite girl was with him. It was the happiest of days. Only briefly did she question her decision to welcome her son and his girlfriend into her home. Of course, that was when her son hauled a refrigerator-sized box filled with shoes into her humble abode.
The almost four years that I lived in Elko were some of the most life-altering, ugly, inspiring, beautiful, and memorable years I’ll ever have. Some days I wanted to drive off, in my beat-up Saturn, back home. Some days, ‘home’ was where she made fried chicken and biscuits, and always had a bowl of fresh fruit waiting.
Every first day, every accomplishment, and many times “just because”, she had flowers waiting. Cards praising my hard work, with gift cards for dinner or new clothes were a common show of love and pride. She kept me going. She was my biggest fan, always cheering me on. Always.
We laughed. We had engaging debates long into the night. We enjoyed discussing her son, my hopes and dreams, and the future. But…we also didn’t care much for each other some days. I think she had no clue what to do with a girly-girl, and I didn’t know how to relate to someone who wore tennis shoes with a skirt. We were polar opposites in so many ways.
Many of the days I endured living in her home were spent positively hating her. She wouldn’t buy a swamp cooler, so I was hot all summer. She was cheap, so I spent the winters freezing, wearing a ski mask inside, so my nose wouldn’t snap right off. She didn’t understand why it was necessary to take 20 minute showers or why I had so many clothes to wash. She didn’t use her dishwasher, so my hands got pruney. She was a pain in the ass. I was a pain in the ass. I was the biggest ass. I hang my head in shame over my ungratefulness, still.
Only when I thought I would lose her, did I realize the error of my ways. There are not enough days left in her life, nor mine to pay her back. To thank her. To have her.
When I drove that dusty highway away from Elko, this time, tears streamed down my face. I was leaving home. I never said ‘goodbye’ to her, too scared that she took his side, that she would reject me. I was also embarrassed, terrified I would cry, or look weak in front of her. So, I just left.
Relationship heartbreak is one thing, but nothing prepares you for the loss of family you grew to love. Nothing.
About a month after leaving Elko, a 7 year relationship, and my second mother, I received a package in the mail from her. It answered all of the questions I still had. Did she remember me? Did she still love me? Had I lost her too?
No. She was still there. She still loved me. I left, but she never did.
We never spoke of what happened, only of the future. Whenever I was at my wits end, frustrated with the teaching job search, she was there to vent to. Her belief in me was unwavering. She didn’t think I would succeed, she knew. She knows.
Anyone who has ever loved a significant other, knows it comes and it goes. Stronger and more meaningful are the relationships you build, unknowingly, while you think nothing is more sacred than the love you feel for your partner. Who is there forever are the people who loved you, quietly, in the background.
Two years after leaving Elko, we finally met while she was on a school trip in Reno.
Her thin gray curls shone like a beacon in the sun. I knew it was her. The familiar gait, the pantyhose and tennis shoes, the open smile, the light in her eyes.
She was there. She will always be there. So will I, repaying her with my love. How else can I show her how much she means to me?