Tell More Stories: Ethel, Birthdays, Gratitude, and Grief

Mar 20, 2024 | Storytelling

This week would have been my mother-in-law’s 84th birthday. She passed away at the age of 77 in October 2017. That started an era of big changes for us. Matt was preparing to go to law school, and we were already working toward moving back to Georgia for those three years.

Of course, the few weeks around her passing were overwhelming and frantic. We had to get to Detroit from Asheville at the last minute and coordinate many things around the funeral and her apartment. But, even in the midst of that, I found gratitude in the grief.

We called her Ethel. That wasn’t her name, but it was something Matt started doing when he was a teenager, and it stuck. I learned quickly that she didn’t respond to anything else I called. So I called her Ethel. I met her when I was only 19, not long after Matt and I started dating. She was a fiery first-generation Italian woman who wore sequins every chance she got. She was funny and kind and always made you food even if you said you weren’t hungry.

At the funeral home, as is a common tradition, her priest came by to lead a celebration of her life. Everyone was invited to tell stories about her. And since stories are my thing, I felt pressured to share a good one. This is what I had.

You’ve Got to be Kitten Me

Ethel never had cats. So when Matt and I brought home our first kitten in 2001, she had no idea how they worked. Piglet wasn’t just any cat; she was a hairless sphynx cat, and when we got her, she was a tiny two-pound baby. We decided to have our families over to meet the kitten. It was August, so it was a perfect time for a kitten shower. We had an ice cream sundae bar and invited my parents, my sister and her family, my brother, Matt’s brother, and Ethel.

Ethel came the night before the party and stayed in our guest room. I remember the morning of the party; I got up and headed to the bathroom to shower. Ethel and Piglet were in the living room getting to know each other. Piglet was a very social kitten and loved meeting new people. When I got out of the shower, Ethel met me in the hallway and said,

“I think there’s something wrong with your kitten.”

I asked her what was going on. She said, “She’s hot, and she’s vibrating.”

I started laughing. “Ethel, she’s purring!”

She laughed too and reminded me she never spent time with cats, at least not friendly ones.

The Family Recipe

I have so many happy memories with Ethel. After we moved to Georgia, she would come to visit us from time to time. On one trip, we decided to take her to our new favorite restaurant. A Greek and Italian fusion place. It was a perfect spot since she was Italian and Matt’s father was Greek.

Matt called and made reservations. It was in the days before online reservations or apps. He gave them his name and the time we would be there and then didn’t think much more about it. But the phone rang a short time later. It was the Aunt of the restaurant owner. She noticed the reservation was for a Greek last name and wanted to know if we had a specific recipe. She was in luck.

Since Ethel was there, she said she could get it and called her sister-in-law in Michigan to read the recipe from the family’s Greek cookbook. Matt’s Aunt gave her both the traditional recipe and their family version. She typed it up, and we took it to the restaurant when we arrived for our reservation. We had a fantastic meal and didn’t think much of that interaction again.

That is, until Matt and I returned to the place maybe a month later. We were there with friends who were also visiting from out of town. When they gave us the dessert menu, we noticed a dessert with Matt’s last name on it. The recipe they used was the family recipe.

Grief and Gratitude

Grief is a powerful thing. In my journey to understanding my Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I’ve learned that there’s a school of thought in the mental health communities that connects unprocessed childhood grief with anxiety. That tracks for me, and I know many other people can identify with that. But as an adult, the experience is different, and I know that I am getting to an age where there will be more loss and more grief.

So, it’s important to me that I focus on the aspects I’m grateful for. That grief will eventually give way to memories that make me smile. So this week, on Ethel’s birthday, I will pour a drink and celebrate her life, remembering how much she loved us and how much we loved her. And I will continue to tell her stories because what is remembered lives.

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