Life with Pasqualena “Lena” Michael, my mother-in-law for 22 years until she passed way in 2016, was enriching, exhilarating, educational, and exciting. At times it was also ear-splitting and exhausting.
Lena was an extraordinary woman who enhanced the lives of those who knew and loved her. All those on the receiving end will forever remember her famous “Lena smile.” I miss Lena and I miss her smile.
I thought I was bachelor for life. Then at age 42, in 1993, I met Mary Teresa Michael and we swept each other off our feet. Or at least as much sweeping as middle-aged people can do. Ten months later we married.
I moved into The Michael House that Lena and husband, Albert, built in 1949 and Mary bought in the 1980s. Albert passed away in 1974, so it was Mary, Lena and me.
Most assumptions I had about being “grown up” were quickly dimmed. I learned, or at least started to learn, how to live with people and understand and appreciate their points of view.
I learned about Mary and Lena, their Italian heritage, the history of the wonderful house, and the Michael family, which is extraordinary in many ways. The Michaels are extraordinary in their love of each other, extraordinary in tradition, extraordinary in storytelling, and extraordinary in numbers.
It sometimes felt was like I was tossed among the gladiators in the Roman Coliseum.
Yes, it was different than my Davis traditions. My Davis family mores included quiet conversations followed by numerous naps.
Thanks to the love and patience of Mary and Lena, I think I grew up. Not overnight. Over the months and years, Mary, Lena, and I shared hundreds of meals, traveled together, and had many, many talks.
Some talks were, ah, very animated. Those near the Coliseum in Rome covered their ears a few times.
I came to more deeply appreciate Mary, her love of life, her love of Lena, and Lena’s love of Mary. And I came to love and appreciate Lena.
Somewhat in jest, I started calling Mary “Lena, Jr.” as I witnessed so many traits they had in common. Lena Jr. and Lena Sr. each were the youngest among four children, made the most of each moment, thrived in the company of others, had a strong work ethic, observed their surroundings, and listened. At least they listened most of the time.
Lena and Mary never talked much of the fact that each at age 14 experienced the death of their father. They simply endured.
Wheelchair-bound while a resident of a nearby nursing home for her last 10 ½ years, Lena made the most of that part of her life by dropping pearls of wisdom, sometimes humorous, on her family, residents and employees of the home, or whomever happened to be nearby. Everyone always knew what was on Lena’s mind.
Once, while the three of us shared dinner, I proudly called Mary and Lena, “My girls.”
“We’re not your girls,” Lena quickly replied. “We are independent women.”
Scratch “my girls” from my vocabulary.
I dipped my toes in the water at first before following Mary’s lead and diving in head first to become a regular visitor of Lena in her new home. I came to truly cherish time with Lena, anticipate our conversation, and take and share quality food. I usually left Lena feeling better than when I arrived.
I was blessed and proud to have Lena as a mother in law. Among other things, she did her best to compensate for me not having the pleasure of a father in law. I knew Albert through her, Lena told me several times.
The somewhat exhausting part for Mary and me was keeping eyes and ears on Lena’s treatment and care. Watchdogs and caregivers are necessary for anyone in any nursing home or hospital.
Lena, Mary and I frequently referred to our trio as a tricycle with Lena our lead wheel. Mary and I now take turns as lead wheel.