In a similar way that I met my wife Erin, I remember the first time I met Erin's mother, Rosemarie.
Truthfully, I met Erin twice. The first time was a chance meeting on the Internet, where she wrote to compliment me on a story I'd uploaded to a Doctor Who fan fiction newsgroup. I was in my last year at university, living with my parents in Kitchener. She was on a work internship with the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva. I was Canadian, she was American. We bonded over Doctor Who, became friends, pen pals, we fell in love. I've told this whole story elsewhere. The critical part of it, though, was that the second time I met Erin -- the first time in person -- felt more momentous.
We'd agreed to attend a Doctor Who convention together, and we agreed to meet in the Great Hall of Chicago's Union Station. She was travelling in from Minneapolis, and I from Kitchener. But I couldn't find her when I got to the station. With my friend Martin in tow, I headed down to the information desk and paged her, and a few minutes later, she showed up.
We recognized each other instantly, through twenty feet of distance and a glass door. I pointed at her. She smiled. That was twenty-seven years ago, but I remember it to this day. I remember the smile she gave me, the mutual ping of recognition, because I just knew that my life was going to change from that moment. That was more than half of my lifetime ago, and my life has not been the same since.
I met Rosemarie seven months later, after Erin and I had a series of intense long-distance dates where we'd take turns visiting each other in Minneapolis, or Toronto. By now, she was living with her mother in Omaha, in an apartment abutting the interstate. I don't remember our particular meeting on this date -- it must have been in Omaha's airport, but she drove me down to the apartment she shared with her mother and we set about reacquainting ourselves with each other, and also getting dinner ready. Rosemarie was at work, but would be coming home soon.
I was nervous. Meeting the parents of the person you intend to marry (and we'd already made our intentions clear at this point) is no small thing. Erin had already had to do this herself with my parents just three months before. I wanted to make a good impression. Fortunately, I'm pretty good with introductions.
A little before supper, the door to the apartment unlocked, and this handsome woman entered. I saw the family resemblance immediately, both in facial features and how they carried themselves. I saw the intelligence in the eyes. Most importantly, I felt the same look of recognition pass between us as it had between myself and Erin in the information desk area at Chicago's Union Station, this sense of, "I know who you are, and I'm going to know you for a while." It was a portent of the beginning of a life-long relationship. When you marry someone, you're marrying their family. Several new relationships are forged at once, and I knew that this had happened in that moment.
And, with a smile with an edge of nervousness that I'm sure matched my own, she came forward and hugged me.
It's a cliche for a husband to be afraid of his mother-in-law. And O'Connor family tells the story of how the sisters gathered around a man who'd fallen in love with their youngest sibling. He was an Italian-American and a pretty fearsome cop, but they gave him the line of "if you hurt our sister, they're never going to find your body" -- the sort of story you laugh over because it's half-serious.
I never got the treatment that Erin's uncle received from Rosemarie's sisters, but I did hear that there was a vice president of a bank that Rosemarie worked for in the early eighties who was a sexist jerk to her, and she managed to put him behind bars -- indeed, he was still behind bars when I was dating Erin. He may still be behind bars today! It's important to note that she didn't fake any of the evidence of embezzlement and forgery that she'd found which put him away, but let us just say that she was highly motivated to go looking for what she found.
Rosemarie was a formidable woman. An active and ardent Democrat in Florida and the Republican Midwest, she never stopped fighting for the causes she believed in. She organized a major fundraiser for the Democrats of South Dakota celebrating Native Son and 1972 Presidential candidate George McGovern -- a successful event that brought Bill Clinton to speak (a speech that Erin helped write, in fact). She was active in the Obama campaign in Iowa in January 2008, which started his run to the White House. She was passionate about issues and descended like the wrath of God on injustice. When Erin and I were just too scrambled to act, she was the one who was moved to action when our eldest was being bullied at school and the school administration wanted everybody to just talk it out. You did not want to be on the wrong side of her.
She was formidable, but we never lived the cliche of the husband being afraid of his mother-in-law. She was a woman who fought hard, and faced some hard times and some very hard moments. We didn't always agree on things; we were somewhat different in temperament, but that wasn't a problem. I've come to learn that, at first, she didn't know what to make of this quiet Canadian man who was taking her daughter away, but as she got to know me, she came to understand and appreciate 'my dry sense of humour', my own expertise in things, my own writing. She had my respect the moment I saw her, and I like to think that I had her respect as well. Because that respect had to be earned.
Over the past year, Rosemarie fought a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. This past Wednesday, she found release, passing away peacefully with her husband Michael and her daughter Erin holding her close, while I looked on. It's a moment that will be etched in my memory, like the kitchen in the apartment in Omaha, or the Information Desk at Chicago's Union Station. The end of a relationship that has lasted over half your lifetime can hit with the same impact as the end of a relationship you've had for your whole lifetime.
Either way, you know your life has changed forever, and that things will never be the same again.