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For Years, My Mother-in-Law and I Bonded Over Coffee — Until One Day We Didn’t


Mother’s Day can seem odd when you are childless by choice. It’s even odder when your own mom has passed away. You want to celebrate — something — but what? For me, it’s my mother-in-law. That hasn’t always been easy.

It seems every mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship develops slowly. Mine moved at glacial speed — not because my mother-in-law was stereotypically bossy, old-fashioned, or set in her ways. Nope — the problem was that she seemed too modern.

What was a 60-something, Indiana-living woman doing downhill skiing, exercising every day, and hitting the dance floor at every wedding? She was good-natured, insisting that I call her Pat out of respect for my own mother and signing all her cards “mom/Pat,” and she looked great, too; modern, but not-over-the-top. What’s a person to do when faced with that?

My mom, no slouch in the modernity department herself, consoled me with reminders that my new mother-in-law didn’t want me to think of her as a parent, but as a friend. I understood, but it sure would have been easier to accept if she smelled like flour, shopped in the plus-size department, and had a passion for preparing pot roast dinners.

It took a while, but I finally found it — the commonality that led to our friendship. Coffee. A “cup of joe.” Java. The only old-fashioned trait my mother-in-law retained was drinking coffee like the World War II generation member her carefully hidden birth certificate revealed her to be. No lattes, cappuccinos, or artisan coffees; she liked her coffee hot, black, and plentiful. I think my percolator — the old-fashioned kind with the clear knob on top — truly sealed our kinship.

As the years passed, our ties strengthened, one cup at a time. The true bonding moments were usually in the early mornings, when she’d visit our house near Washington, D.C. We’d sit on the window seat in my kitchen, sipping, chatting, and watching the birds flit among the bushes. That’s when we’d talk about books, travel, and life’s ups and downs.

What a joy. My mom and I had also spent many happy hours chatting over cups of coffee, so I was delighted to have a new coffee confidant. Soon I was sending my mother-in-law specialty coffee for her Mother’s Day gifts.

One day during a visit to our home, she told us she could no longer drink regular coffee, only decaffeinated. We bought decaffeinated coffee and reserved a spanking new 6-cup percolator for her sole use. A few visits later she confided that she couldn’t drink any coffee. She’d make due with water. Mornings still found us sitting in my kitchen, but our warm chats cooled.

Her coffee boycott ended my coffee-as-the-go-to Mother’s Day gift. Silly as it sounds, that made me sad. I had lost my mom. Now I felt as if I was losing a special bond with my mother-in-law.

On a recent visit to her home Indiana, I saw it: Right on her counter sat a brand-new Keurig, one-cup-at-a-time coffee machine. She looked embarrassed when she realized I’d seen it. But, as is her way, she quickly recovered and invited me to join her for a cup.

At first, it was awkward. I felt like a tradition had passed. And hey, weren’t we supposed to be friends? Why didn’t she tell me it wasn’t coffee she didn’t like — it was MY coffee?

That’s when I realized in my quest to strengthen our bond, I had tried to slot her into a traditional “mom” role. How silly — especially considering she remains every bit as modern as when I first met her 27 years ago (and yes, she still downhill skies, though recently gave up the night scuba diving).

Soon we hunkered down for a cozy chat. Just like old times.

“I love this thing,” she said, looking at the Keurig before glancing at me. “I can’t drink coffee made in other machines. Do you like it?”

“It’s perfect,” I responded.

Coffee is my bond with Pat, just as it was with my mother. How lucky I am that every time I brew a pot, it revives memories of lovely times with each of them. That’s a cause for celebration, especially on Mother’s Day.

This essay was written by Nancy Dunham.

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