Remarriage Surprise: A Mother-in-Law

On February 19, 2006, when Allan proposed to me at Hoff Jewelers at a mall in Maplewood, Minnesota, for some odd reason it never dawned on me that I’d be inheriting a mother-in-law too. I was 59 and Allan 60—youngsters at heart. Our spouses had died, so it was a second marriage for both of us. Still, he wanted to give me a diamond ring. Aglow as the gem sparkled on my finger, I pictured Allan and me hand-in-hand for the rest of our lives.

In April, five months before our September wedding, I was looking forward to retiring from the St. Paul schools. For some strange reason—maybe love or madness—I had sent my husband’s 88-year-old mother an invitation to my party, figuring there was no way she would drive all the way to Minnesota from Florida just to attend my retirement celebration. I had talked to her only a few times on the phone, so what were the chances?

Allan’s mother, independent woman that she was, left Florida in her Chevy Impala and headed north just in time to arrive in Minnesota for my party. Standing in my bedroom, trying to decide which shoes went best with my bunion boot (I’d had surgery), I heard a tiny voice filtering down the hallway and through the door. I hobbled into the living room; my eyes landed on a petite lady, dressed in a blue suit, relaxing in our swivel rocking chair. She smiled at me. My first thought was, “Oh my God, that’s my future mother-in-law!”

In July, Allan’s brother arrived pulling a U-Haul trailer; Ilene followed behind in her white Impala. Allan’s mother had found an apartment in Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the river from us. During our frequent visits, Ilene always greeted me with a smile and a kiss. Her generous heart and old-fashioned charm made her easy to love. She never meddled in our life. I got along just fine with my 88-year-old mother-in-law.

Ilene loved to tell us about life on the farm in Emerald, Wisconsin, during the Depression. At 18 she took her first bus ride to Minneapolis and enrolled in business school, paying her tuition with the money she had earned selling berries on the farm. After seven months, she landed a clerical job at Brown & Bigelow, adding up time cards. Widowed at 80, she continued to share her positive energy as a greeter in the ER at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, Florida.

One beautiful fall day, our friends invited us over to their house to give Ilene a ride in their Model T Ford—the same-model car she’d learned how to drive when she was 12. Sitting in the driver’s seat, she rubbed her hands gently over the steering wheel and explained how every pedal and button worked. Listening to her share memories of driving and delivering milk in her folks’ Model T was like reconnecting with an old friend—it was a memorable day for all of us.

In November 2011, Ilene broke her hip. After surgery and numerous hospital stays, she ended up in a nursing home 20 miles away from us. Then, on New Year’s Eve day, my husband shattered his knee and broke his back in a ladder accident. With two people needing my support, I decided to move Ilene to a facility closer to home, and made many trips there while my husband was at home healing. Ilene and I enjoyed spending time together. Even meeting her at dental and doctor’s appointments gave us time to bond.

One day, at one of those appointments, her doctor said, “Ilene, you seem sad. Is there something bothering you?”

Twisting her hands in her lap, she started to cry. “I’m worried about my son, Allan.” As I started to tell him about the ladder accident, suddenly I was crying too. The doctor, caught between two whimpering women, quickly handed a tissue to Ilene and one to me. With the two of us sniffling, he ordered a mild antidepressant for Ilene. Driving home, I wished the doctor had prescribed some of those little white pills for me too.

After months of therapy, Allan got stronger, and together we made our regular trips to the nursing home. We ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with Ilene, played her old-time polka CDs, and bought her scratch-offs as often as we could. In October 2012, she became weaker, requiring more help. Hospice provided music therapy, pastoral support and an extra bath each week—a luxury Ilene loved. During the last week we spent with Ilene, morphine helped ease her pain as we stood by her bedside, held her hand, and helped her sip water. Her life ended on January 17, 2013 at the age of 94. Her compassionate spirit remains with us forever.

Dedicated to my mother-in-law, Ilene Dettmann, and all the women who share their love, compassion, and selfless commitment to making a positive difference in the daily lives of others. Have a happy Mother’s Day!

Diane Dettmann

More Articles Written by Diane

Diane's the author of two memoirs, Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow's Story of Love, Loss and Renewal, and Miriam Daughter of Finnish Immigrants. Twenty-Eight Snow Angels was selected as a runner-up in the national "2013 Beach Book Festival" awards. She has presented her work at libraries, historical centers, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores, the “Minnesota Reading Association,” and at international immigration conferences in Turku, Finland and Thunder Bay, Canada. She has facilitated writing workshops at the Bloomington Writer's Festival and Book Fair in Bloomington, Minnesota and at local writer's groups. As a literacy staff developer in the St. Paul Public Schools, she attended national literacy training and provided staff development for teachers in the area of writing and reading instruction. She has attended national writer's conferences where she has met and interacted with authors, publicists, agents and writing instructors. Her books have been reviewed in local newspapers and also in national and international publications. Diane is a contributing author for the “Women’s Voices for Change” website. Her writing has also been featured online on “Brandlady,” “The Finnish North American Literature Association,” and the “Grief Project”. She has been interviewed by KAXE radio in northern Minnesota, Dr. Gloria with Open to Hope Radio in Palo Alto, California and the national magazine for retired educators, neatoday This Active Life. Reviews of her writing have been published in the Finnish American Reporter, The Woodbury Bulletin and the St Paul Pioneer Press. A portion of her book sales is donated to the “American Widow Project,” a non-profit that supports military widows, widowers and their families. Diane is currently working on a post WWII novel. Diane’s Website:

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