04/19/2007 10:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Proper Plunderer: For My Mother-in-Law

It's been more than two years since my mother-in-law died and, still, I find myself tooling around town in her clothes, unable to stop wearing a few select items. Sweaters mostly. An odd fit, is what my friends say and not merely because she was long and lean and I am rounder, shorter. When it came to dress, we had vastly different standards - or should I say boundaries? - regarding cleavage and curves of all sorts. My mother-in-law was prone to cover up. I am not. Under her breath, I suspect she might have called me a libertine.

My mother-in-law, Eileen Goodwin O'Keefe Mulvaney, was a privileged Irish Catholic woman of her time and place, raised in a series of Long Island mansions staffed by maids and a nanny and stocked with carved, expensively upholstered wooden furniture, lace curtains that had nothing to hide - decor-wise, anyway - wooden beams, grand chandeliers and great reverence for the unspoken. Her father, a successful businessman, and a devout Republican who had never been heard to utter a kind word about FDR, told her she was so smart it was a pity she wasn't a boy.

My mother in-law was Talbot's (before it moved to the mall).

I, on the other hand, grew up shopping at Macy's on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, not far from where our family lived in a semi-attached brick house on Avenue I across from Congregation B'nai Israel of Midwood. We had thin green carpeting and heavy green drapes in our small living room, part of which looked out on the driveway we shared with Mr. and Mrs. Weiner. As for household help, my own mother occasionally hired "a girl" - a series of young and middle-aged black women who cleaned for a living. On their lunch breaks they sat at our pink Formica kitchen table where they were served, dish-washing included. Ours was not only a working-class family; it was a union family, too.

When first introduced, it seemed that the only thing Eileen Mulvaney and I had in common was that we both loved her son. She was very nice to me. But a little too polite. Her son and I had met covering a murder at the newspaper where we worked and, his own career choice notwithstanding, I didn't think that a Jewish girl-reporter was what Eileen Mulvaney had in mind as a wife for her first-born prince.

Ah, but life is filled with surprises. By the second time she and I met, I thought that the woman who was then my boyfriend's mother was, as he, himself, might say, "a great broad," someone who might have had these intermittent periods as a libertine, herself. She seemed to really like me, too. A year later, on the day I moved in with her son, she packed my boxes into her car, only once mentioning, more as bemused self-examination than parental criticism, that she was "helping her boy to live in sin." Early in the spring of 1984 we announced that we were leaving town to cover Ireland, the North included. She didn't flinch over the prospective danger but did ask us to please consider marriage before going to "such Catholic places," if only to make it easier when we checked into hotels. We planned a wedding in two months. She didn't flinch about that either.

So in the beginning I liked my mother-in-law.

I couldn't say, though, that I loved her nearly as much as I would. These things take time to grow. In good marriages love grows deeper, and it is the same with in-laws. So what made the love grow? In large part, the good times and the bad that we lived through and that sometimes intersected: The death of my own parents right before my first son was born in yet another locale, Mexico City. The birth of another son in Hong Kong, months before his older brother was diagnosed with regressive autism. My mother-in-law, Eileen Mulvaney was around for all of these events and in effect she became my adoptive mother. Years later we were colleagues, too, teaching for a few years at the same university.

True, we didn't always get along. Far from it. She could be very nasty. I could be very cranky. And there was always that great big "elephant" in the room. Autism. My mother-in-law, as smart as her own father had noted, was a special education teacher with a doctorate in reading. Yet what good was all that when she couldn't make her grandson talk again? She couldn't get through to him or stop his tantrums. All she could do was watch. We spent months angry at her and she, consequently, spent months angry at us. And we were all angry at ourselves. Then, as part of a fortuitously spectacular truce, my mother-in-law decided to concentrate her hands-on energy on our younger son. As the sibling of a disabled kid, he needed the attention badly.

All families have their dramas, like the ones above. But I think that what they also have, what also makes love grow is precise knowledge. As the years passed, I learned the very specifics that distinguished Eileen Mulvaney from every other human on earth. Ask me today what I loved most about my mother-in-law and I will say it was her gorgeous inconsistencies. I saw that early on, particularly on the day she helped me to "live in sin" with her son. But it took years before I could really identify these inconsistencies as perhaps her most fascinating character trait. It was only with time that I learned that within hours she might change from the reticent Eileen Mulvaney, the one who said, in effect, "don't try you might fail" into the one who announced: "Sure, sister. I have brains aplenty. But what good are brains without guile?"

As the young wife of an attorney-on-the-rise, she smoked a cigar in front of a newspaper columnist and got the family business some good publicity. Decades later, as a counselor for learning disabled students at that university where we worked, she was fired in what she - and all of us in the family- believed was a blatant violation of the Bill of Rights. She gathered evidence as if she was a pro - a tape recorder may have been involved - took it to the National Labor Relations Board and got her job back.

And, no, she didn't go to the NLRB wearing white gloves.

In October 2004 at the age of 74 my mother-in-law started going blind and forgetting things. She was diagnosed with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a debilitating, fatal and terrifyingly quick brain disease. By the end of November she was dead. A few weeks earlier, I had gathered with my husband, his brother and their father - Eileen Mulvaney's former and only husband -- to try to gauge what she could comprehend about her chances. When the men left she and I held hands and cried.

"So I guess this is what it comes down to," she said. "You and me."
I nodded. " I love you," I said.

And I did. Still, I never would have imagined that two years later I would be wearing her clothes. Or that I would ever wear them period.

Now, though, it seems obvious. The other thing she told me that day when we were alone was this: "There's a lot of stuff in my house. Make sure the boys don't throw it out."

Well, I couldn't help but laugh. My husband and his brother were the types that might. And then, there was this thing about my mother-in-law and death, in general, which considering what I had learned about her made perfect sense. She was, as I'd noticed over the years, quite adept at plundering the homes of recently deceased relatives. Whenever one of them died, the conversation among the men in her family would include a giddy mixture of memory and anticipation and go something like this:

"She's at the apartment, now," my husband would say.
"Going through drawers,' his brother would add.
"Can't wait to see what she finds this time," said their father.

As predicted, she'd return, her pockets filled with watches but also trinkets, many worthless. She herself lacked little, and didn't do this for the money. But it did seem that the more she loved the dead person, the more she took -- as if she could keep people alive by merely possessing their things.

The day after her brother Robert died, as the undertakers prepped his body, she ushered me into his Stuyvesant Town apartment.

"Keep your pocketbook open and move fast," she said her blue eyes aglow, as she snatched some cuff links. My brown eyes shone, too. It was the first time I'd been invited!

An hour before my mother-in-law's funeral, I grabbed an amber necklace from her jewelry box and hung it around my neck. I bought this for her, anyway, I reasoned, thinking I am not like her. This will be the end of it.

But as the months passed, I often found myself at her house, in charge of going through her things. She might have been dead but her very particular inconsistencies had outlived her. For years Eileen Mulvaney told all her friends that she hated to shop. But her closets were packed with more clothes than I could ever have imagined. Two of her best friends, angels really, carted much of her wardrobe off to a soup kitchen. Her suits went to an organization that dressed women trying to get back into the workforce. When it got to be too much, even for those worthy charities, I took the rest to a dumpster, at a nearby church, hoping that still more people would actually get to wear my mother-in-law's clothes; that they wouldn't get made into sofa stuffing.

I came back and found more. Her friends had put them aside. Gently they suggested I keep some for myself.

My husband said he wouldn't mind if I wore his mother's clothes, although he couldn't imagine he would notice or that I would like them -- or that they would fit.

In her closets, though, I was reminded of else something I should have considered. My mother-in-law bought a lot of her clothes too big. Consequently, her sweaters fit me perfectly. And after I pulled down a few zippers and opened the buttons she had worn closed, those sweaters felt as if they were my own and always had been.

Like the two of us, her clothes and my body were an odd fit but one that, ultimately worked.

So maybe my mother-in-law Eileen Mulvaney isn't really still alive. And maybe she was wrong about thinking she could hold on to people through their things. But if you can't keep the person, you should, at the least, keep the sweaters.

Eileen and Jack.jpg
Eileen Mulvaney making a gingerbread house with her grandson Jack Mulvaney, mid-1990s.

Eileen at FYH.jpg
Eileen Mulvaney, in the late 1990s, posing for a photograph that would be part of a large community portrait of Long Beach, New York by Hedy Pagremanski.