1968 – Feb 7, 2017

the Mother-in-Law

noun

  1. the mother of one’s husband or wife.

The first time I met her in the summer of 1968, she opened her mouth with a lie. “Hi. I’m Annie.” It was early afternoon and already the stench of cigarettes and beer along with the smells from a dozen different food combinations put me off. She worked as a breakfast/lunch waitress (actually the best waitress I have ever seen in action) and when she came home at 2pm, out came the ashtray and the endless rotation of beer. Didn’t matter what kind. Whatever was there. And in the recliner she sat until dark when she would announce in slurred words, that she was off to bed. We would watch as she bumped into furniture and walls, unphased at the almost stranger’s eyes taking in this odd routine of hers. Linda would giggle as “Annie” would talk to the furniture grazing her hip as though it was alive. Bob would apologize and I could see the disappointment in his eyes.

I was not used to witnessing this. My dad would have a “pony” Coors sometimes at night or while mowing the lawn on a Sunday afternoon. Our family would toast with an ounce or two of wine at Thanksgiving dinner. Mom would have a mixed drink once a year when she and her merry gang of five were off to the nationals bowling tournament. Drinking was not a common occurrence in our house and the only drunk person I ever saw was on television. In my later high school years, I will confess that I was actually sloppy drunk one time and I am not proud of it. One other time after graduation, Bob and I had closed down The Shack and he had to walk me to bed. That was a giggly drunk and at least a step up from my sloppy drunk experience. Not my finest hours.

I came to ignore “Annie’s” behavior. I did not care for her, although I really did try to love her as I guess I should. I was never that good of a person to get the job done. I know Bob and Linda really did love her and they knew they had no choice but to accept her as she was. Bob’s dad had died a year before I met his mother. Ed was an abusive drunk who cheated on his wife (About one year before he died, Bob had the pleasure of meeting a sweet half-sister, Kathy, through Facebook who was within one month of Linda’s age); beat “Annie” and took out his displeasure with life in general on Bob almost daily with his fists, steel toed boots and anything else that was handy. When someone noticed the marks on Bob’s face at school, the police made a visit that night to their home. Bob had the courage to tell the officer, not about his own beatings, but that his dad beat his mother. When the officer asked “Annie” for confirmation, she denied it and said Bob was lying. Lies, lies and more lies. Bob then asked the police officer to take him out of the home as he would surely be beaten if he were left there. He was told by the officer to behave and he wouldn’t get punished. With a pat on the head and the sage advice, the officer was gone. Bob said he felt defeated because he knew he had no one to protect him. He had to stay home from school for a week because he was too hurt to walk to school, and probably more so that his parents would not be questioned about the bruises and the wounds. Bob was eight years old.

Years later during dinner at Linda’s, “Annie” of course was drinking beer and with slurred speech looked at me and said “I probably should have not let Ed be so hard on Bobby”. I remember Bob taking my hand under the table to calm me as he most certainly knew what was coming next. I could feel the anger in my chest like a heavy brick as I explained to her that as much as I loved her son – and I loved him more than anything or anybody – if he ever treated me or our kids the way Ed treated him; I would wait for him to fall asleep and then bash his brains out with a baseball bat until I knew he was dead. Well, the room got eerily quiet as I turned away from her to meet my husband’s blue eyes filled with tears. Not sure if it was the memories or his mother not protecting him or the love he knew I had for him and our babies. I do know he barely let go of my hand all evening.

Bob told me early in our marriage that many times, a bartender would call the house and tell Bob that someone had to get his parents because the bar was closing. Bob would walk to the bar and get his parents in the car, and drive them home in the wee hours of the morning when they lived in Nebraska. Bob was 12 years old.

After his dad had died, Bob was in his teens when his mom would call him weekly late at night and tell him with slurred speech that a man was bothering her at the bar. He would get out of bed, walk to the bar in Grand Junction, get his mom and drive her home and help get her to bed. This went on for years.

After graduation, I was on my own and Bob was staying with me most of the time. He and his sister rented a place together and Bob was still paying his share of the rent. One evening, “Annie” called and said Linda was at the house and asked us to come over for a while to visit. While we didn’t want to, Bob would move heaven and earth for his sister and so off we went. By this time “Annie” was living with Ted and somehow had gotten her last name changed to his on her insurance and driver’s license and claimed they were married. Lies. (They never were. But she had heard that if she were recognized as a common law wife, she would have claim to his money and property – which, at the time, was substantial. Never happened!) As soon as we walked in the door, a drunken “Annie” began a tirade at the top of her raspy voice telling Bob how he was shirking his duties to his sister all just to shack up with (here comes the good part) that SLUT! Oh. She should not have said that. Linda took me by the arm and led me to the kitchen where we could still hear the barrage of insults bouncing off the walls, but we were out of sight. The screaming stopped and in a calm voice Bob asked “Are you finished?” Her mistake was answering yes. I will leave it there but suffice it to say, he made his opinions of his alcoholic mother and her lifestyle clear. We left and did not return for several months after that.

After we married in April 1971, Bob was transferred to Cheyenne, Wyoming for 4 months and then to Longmont, Colorado. This was the adorable and small Longmont; before the influx of drugs hit the small city. We loved Longmont and I especially loved being on our own and away from the mother-in-law. We were making a little home for ourself and preparing to welcome our firstborn; Cristopher Robert. It was during this time of nesting that “Annie” called Bob and asked him to come and get her from Grand Junction because Ted had beaten her (a fairly regular occurrence) and he had kicked her out of his house. The whole Common law wife thing did not pan out for her. So, I, being 7 months pregnant and on bedrest and Bob after working 65 hours a week, hopped in our old car and made the almost 8 hour drive to Grand Junction. We slept one night. and the following morning, Bob drove her car loaded with stuff and I drove our car loaded with stuff and back to Longmont we went.

It was not comfortable with her living in our little house on 10th Street. She complained that we had the larger bedroom and she the smaller one. She was messy and left stuff all over the floor of her room. The kitchen was very large for the small house and she never put anything away or washed a dish. I was seething. 6 weeks before I was to be induced, we moved to our new apartment with one of those “beehive” fireplaces – in bright orange enamel! Pretty fancy for a couple of kids just making their way into adulthood. “Annie” moved with us and immediately began trashing her room just as before. We tried talking to her nicely, but to no avail. After a long day at work, Bob came home exhausted. He walked past her room and seeing all of the crap on the floor was the final straw for him. She was nowhere around because she was at a bar somewhere. I watched in amusement as Bob picked up a tube of her bright red lipstick and wrote on her huge round mirror “CLEAN THIS DUMP UP AND MOVE OUT”.

A few hours later the phone is ringing, jarring us awake. Bob left to pick her up from the bar and brought her home. I couldn’t sleep so I put on my robe and sat on the sofa in the living room waiting for them to arrive. As soon as they walked through the door, I could tell “Annie” was more drunk than usual. She walked into her bedroom and saw the note and assumed I was the author. She started yelling at Bob telling him I was sleeping around with his best friend while he was in Wyoming for training. (What’s a couple more lies?) I was furious. Bob gave instruction to his best friend to watch over me and drive me up and down North Avenue on Friday night so I could see and chat with my friends. Choya obliged and even had a cold soda and small bag of Clover Club potato chips awaiting me in the passenger seat. Bob then marched over to the refrigerator and took all of her liquor and beer and one by one, poured it all out in the sink. He told her she had one week to move and that her booze was no longer allowed in our home. He also said that no matter what, if she got herself into a situation in a bar she could get herself out of the situation on her own. One week later, we had our apartment back to ourselves and now it sparkled fresh and clean. We relaxed and awaited our first addition to our family.

Early in our marriage, Bob’s grandma told us that Bob had a brother – born in between Linda (1948) and Bob (1952). She said that “Annie” told her that the baby had died of whooping cough in California (she later said Nebraska) while Bob’s dad was away. Grandma Hartwig searched public records for years never to find a death certificate or a hospital who had a child of that age and description who died as a result of whooping cough. When she got something, she would clench it in her teeth like a pit bull and shake it until she found out the truth. She finally got “Annie” to admit that the child did not die, but instead was given to one of “Annie’s” sisters and brother in law as they were unable to have biological children. She then told Bob and his Grandma that if they ever brought the subject up again, she would kill herself before she ever gave them any more information. That was that.

In 2003, we learned that Bob’s kidneys had already failed 30% and that the only successful remedy would be a kidney transplant. During a phone call from the mother-in-law, she was wondering if I had any ideas on something to get him for his birthday. I came out with “the best gift you could ever give him would be the information so he could contact his brother”. Wrong answer. She immediately began yelling that Bob should not have told me because that was her family business. I told her that Bob and I told each other everything. With that, she harshly commented that I had no right to know this information let alone to bring it up to her. The phone went dead.

At that point, I thought it best to inform my husband that his mother was perhaps, a bit miffed at me. He just kind of sighed and said he would give her a call. About 5 minutes later, Bob called me. Said “Annie” yelled and again threatened suicide and slammed down the phone. At that time, she knew Bob’s kidneys were failing and that he would need a kidney transplant in the not so far away future. She knew that his brother would be a good candidate as they probably had the same blood type. Bob was an O+ and although he was a universal donor, he needed an O blood type kidney. Our boys were all ABs like me. His own mother knew the importance of Bob meeting his brother. And yet she dismissed it with lame excuses of saving face and how she would never want to hurt her first son because she loved him so much. I was furious. I wanted to get a court order for the information. Bob said to let it be. He said “Annie” was just a pathetic old woman and he didn’t want to upset her any further.

I had these conversations with Bob about twice a year. I also had these conversations with her about twice a year which always ended with hurling insults aimed at me and the phone slamming leaving me with just a dial tone. If memory serves, I believe it was 2014 while Bob was recovering from a 2 day coma that I finally just broke. I had come home from the hospital after spending most of the night there. It was early morning and I took a shower and washed my hair and sat on the sofa in a towel. I picked up the phone and called “Annie”. When she answered I told her I wanted her to shut up and not say one word until I told her I was done. I just blurted out the words, “your son is dying.” I explained to her that he was waking from a coma and was not going to live much longer. I told her that he had a right to know his brother before he died. He was no longer able to receive a transplant – that option was no longer on the table. His heart would not withstand the procedure. I told her that when Bob did pass on, I would have a clean heart. I knew that I had done everything that I could to save Bob’s life. Could she claim the same? I thought not. I demanded that she give me the information on Bob’s brother or I was going to court and then it would be all out in the open. All she said was “honey, I just can’t do that”. Again – the dial tone.

I called Ricky in Virginia and told him what I had done. All he could do was to blurt out “uh-oh. You had better tell dad.” While we were talking, “Annie” called back. I left the call with Ricky and answered the other line.

“do you have a paper and pencil because I am only going to say this one time and one time only”.

She proceeded to give me his birthdate, place of birth and hospital. Her sister’s name and her brother in law’s name and profession and last known location. When she was done, I thanked her and ended the call before anything offensive snuck out of my mouth.

Time to put Jeffry to work. If given a tiny bit of information, this kid will find anything on the world wide web! Within a couple of hours he had more information that we had been able to ascertain in 40 years. It seemed like every hour he had gathered more and more statistics. It was fascinating to find out that his mother’s name she had used since adulthood was not “Annie”. The maiden name she had given us and had on Bob’s birth certificate was no where near the actual name. The story about how and when her parents had died – another blatant lie. And the hits just kept coming. It was like a ping pong game of phone calls and emails and texts of information. In no time, Jeffry had actually made email contact with a close relative of Bob’s brother.

Her name was thought to be Anna June Hoftman (Gardner). Her actual name was June Anne Nethercutt. A post-mortem DNA test proved her connection with the Nethercutt line and her heritage. Census records report that she lived her childhood years with her sister, Estella. Estella and her husband were “given” Bob’s brother and they later adopted another boy and raised the two boys as brothers in a comfortable and loving home. His name was told to us as Kent Edward Gardner. His actual name was Edward Kent Gardner. Why all of the lies? What was the reason for changing her identity? We will probably never understand or know the full scope of her life. Suffice it to say, June had ample opportunity at a chance to relay the information a dozen years or more before Bob died. Could he have received a kidney transplant from a blood brother and maybe have been alive today? If there had been one speck of a chance, she should have allowed it. Instead, she let him down as she had done so many times in his life. The ultimate betrayal of a mother. She sat back and did nothing until it was too late.

After trying to organize my thoughts, I went to the hospital and told Bob what I had done and what Jeffry had found. One email from Jeffry was just “holy shit!” Even he was a bit amazed at the amount of information he had unearthed. Bob was overwhelmed and called to thank Jeffry. The call went to voicemail and the sound bite was one that Jeffry saved and shared with me. I often listen to it just to hear Bob’s voice again. I always felt so protected behind his deep, strong voice. It still soothes me.

“Holy shit is right.”

It was all that I could do to remain civil to June at Bob’s memorial on the Grand Mesa. But this was not a day to play up to the tears and sniveling from a fake mother. She had no idea of the information that Jeffry had unearthed. I chose to not engage with her that day unless forced to. In the months that followed, she would call me from time to time to lament that she was so lonely without Bobby’s weekly phone calls. I had to tell myself not to remind her that she could have made other choices. Control your mouth, Connie. It was my mantra. When I received a call from her friend on February 7, 2017 to tell me that Annie had died, I honestly had no reaction other than to tell her friend that I was sorry. For a year following, I handled her bills and obligations the best I could. I had no desire to have her ashes on the Mesa with the family I so loved. One evening I received a call from Michael, her grandson and son of Dennis and Linda. He was asking if he could have some of the ashes to take to his mother’s gravesite. It was the perfect solution. I gave Michael permission with the mortuary to collect the ashes. It made Michael happy to pay tribute with his mom and it solved my problem of what to do and still be respectful. Respect and understanding and forgiveness are three totally different emotions. I will always show respect for the deceased. I will try to understand the actions of others even when I do not accept them. But, some things are unforgivable in my eyes. This was never my action to forgive and I cannot grant her absolution for doing the unimaginable. I am certain that our paths will never cross again. And for that – I am grateful.