When I was getting a divorce, twelve years ago, my mother-in-law said, “I want you and I to remain friends.”
I muttered some polite platitude in return.
Friends with the mother of the man with whom I was engaged in a who-hurt-whom-most contest? Right. On which planet would that happen?
During my eleven years with her son, I had never really thought of Sue as my friend. True, she had always been extremely kind to me but as far as I could see, as women, we were poles apart. I did not understand her background and outlook, and took it for granted that she had little clue of where I was coming from. Every Christmas and birthday, I cringed at the presents she sent me, invariably containing bows, frills and flowery scents. Her proud Welshness brought out fierce and uncharacteristic English nationalism in me. She proposed to decorate our wedding cake with daffodils. They were my favourite flowers until I realised they emblematised Wales. “This isn’t a blinking rugby match!” I protested, thereby also deriding Sue’s beloved sport. “I’d rather have English roses.” Thankfully, the end product was a three-tier, nation-free dessert. Moreover, coming from a family of two, I felt overwhelmed by the number of relatives I was marrying into, which seemed to constitute half of South Wales (though even I had to admit that they were uniformly lovely.)
After the divorce, I assumed I would not see Sue again but our paths crossed again when my by then ex-husband was hospitalised, and we had to liaise over various medical arrangements.
One evening, almost as a spite against the cold shoulder I was parading, Sue knocked on my door. She was holding a bottle of organic merlot veneto. I cooked pasta and we uncorked the wine. We talked and opened up to each other. Casting off niceties, we left exposed – and for both to see – anger, disappointment, hopes, fears, pain and vulnerability.
Slowly, we stepped out of the prescriptive roles of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and began weaving an entirely new kind of bond. One we improvised, since we could find no model for it in our social circles, books, or films. One thread at a time, one misunderstanding, resolution and laugh at a time – our progress was conducted over the ‘phone and in writing.
I have not seen Sue for ten years. The reasons for this are multiple and complex. They involve our living in different parts of the country, her struggling with a debilitating case of M.E., but also an unspoken pact not to cross certain boundaries. Most of these, Sue has erected for my own emotional protection, and I can only imagine the strength she musters to guard them. For example, in the ten years of our friendship, she has not mentioned my ex-husband once. She shares with me news of the trials and joys of her other sons and their families. I feel genuine concern for their problems and genuine delight for their achievements. About the son to whom I was married, she keeps silent. It is as though the man with whom I spent eleven years came into my life with the sole purpose of leaving me the gift of this precious friendship with this extraordinary lady. His task achieved, he has no place in the rich tapestry Sue and I have woven, so his name need not be mentioned.
I call Sue at least once a week. We chat, set the world to rights, deplore the downward spiral trend of the country, bemoan the state of education, enthuse about books, drool over the mellifluous voices of Shakespearean actors, and share a love for the English language. I ask her to scan all my projects, run to her with my anxieties and tell her about my successes. A talented artist, she sends me cards painted with elegant cat figures and abstract patterns. I feel deeply privileged to be her friend, and undeservedly lucky that she should be mine. She reads everything I write and is my staunch, loyal supporter. “I’ve always known you’re a writer,” she tells me.
“Someday, I’ll write a play about us,” I reply.
I hear excitement in her voice, as she wholeheartedly approves.