Belle-mère Means Mother-in-Law: Managing Loss and Love Across a Jagged Color Line

Me, with my belle-mère, at the port in La Grande Motte, France.

After my mother’s death, I learned again how it feels to be loved as someone’s child. But it was not an easy lesson.

When she died in 2008, I thought I was an orphan. Technically, I was. My father had passed away four years earlier and I was among the first in my circle to be without a living parent. At my mother’s early spring memorial service, a friend pulled me aside after a tree planting in the garden. “Welcome to an exclusive club,” one that few aspired admittance into.

I was, as those already inside this particular circle of loss knew well, beyond consolation. My mother was a one-of-a-kind nurturer, advisor, friend, and fellow traveller for me. Her absence left a chasm and I knew my world would never be the same. For many months, in a recurring dream, she returned: Me clutching her desperately, overwhelmed with relief that we were reunited. I would wake in a sweat and moan myself back to sleep most nights. Many motherless daughters, I’m certain, know this feeling.

Her dying months were accompanied by a parallel, big life event. I’d become engaged — a second, late-life betrothal — to a Frenchman with whom I took up a trans-Atlantic existence. Enter Mimi, my mother-in-law, or in French belle-mère as in beautiful mother. Hers was another world: Scented with lavender and decorated with mementos of a famille Provençale. She shared my own mother’s birthday. I took this as a sign, even as in those painful months spent nursing the woman who had given me life I wasn’t certain what sort of sign it was.

My lack of sureness had much to do with anticipatory grief. But it also had to do with language. Mimi spoke only French, while I could barely manage ordering a baguette from our neighborhood boulanger in Paris. On weekend visits to her home in a port on the Mediterranean Sea, I fumbled through stock phrases, cribbed from notes provided by a tutor, and smiled a great deal hoping that I might traverse our distance with good will. My fiancé translated dutifully. Still, I could see Mimi grow frustrated with our slow, mediated conversations. She wanted to know me better.

I labored to explain who I was and from where I came. I slowly unpacked my family past, peeling back layers that showed how mine was hardly the first generation to cross lines of culture and more. Those essential chapters, such as the history of slavery and African American culture in the United States, Mimi had never encountered up close. Add to that my parents’ mixed-race union and me, their ambiguous looking child, and there was a lot to talk about. Perhaps I lingered here because on such topics my vocabulary was best. I am a historian of race and slavery and so these words came more easily than most.

One Sunday afternoon, we prepared to say goodbye. Embracing in a shadowed entryway, Mimi and I deposited the customary three kisses on the cheeks. We’d had a good visit, I could tell, from the way her bises lingered as she pulled me close. Then, she looked into my eyes and spoke directly, my fiancé standing just over her right shoulder. “You did a good job this weekend with your French,” I think she said. Her smile was warm. “Just talk. Don’t worry if you speak petit-nègre.” I froze. My French was not good, but my instinct for racist terms kicked in. I looked up, saw the horror on my fiancé’s face, and knew I was right.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. I’m sure my fiancé interrupted in a way that reassured me. He would manage what was an awkward — as in near-fatal — collision. What he said to Mimi was sputtered so quickly and colloquially that I did not follow. Still, her change in expression and cascading apology let me know that he had rebuked her words and the meaning they conveyed. On our return ride to Paris, the countryside sped past the train windows while we sat still, near frozen with doubt.

I had, in a sense, been there before. My ability, some would say, to pass for white has led to countless fatally awkward moments: Racist words emanating from those who’ve no idea that I am literally on the receiving end. Mimi hadn’t meant to call me nègre. She hadn’t intended to brand me with the French n-word. But there it was, between us, threatening to spoil the family we were attempting to stitch together across oceans, cultures, and a jagged color line.

I got a new sort of French lesson in the days that followed. When my fiancé wasn’t off in another room having pained discussions with his mother sotto voce, we talked about how race was embedded in the French language. It turned out that petit-nègre was but one such phrase that I might expect to hear uttered by those who meant no special offense. Slavery, colonialism, and racism have embedded in France’s lexicon expressions whose derision turns on anti-black ideas. We agreed on one thing: The words simultaneously meant nothing and everything in our lives.

It must have been the underlying panic I felt at the prospect of losing my own mother that kept me above the fray. While my fiancé was on the edge of an irreconcilable breech with his mother, I sat at our tiny dining table and counseled understanding and forgiveness. Only as I write this nearly ten years later am I certain of why. The likelihood that I would soon lose my own mother meant we could not bear to lose Mimi also. Mothers — they are singular, incomparable, and generally we get but one. All too soon Mimi would be the only, and we would have to share.

I was right. Not six months later I was an orphan. But a lucky one. When I returned to Mimi’s terrace overlooking the port, she caressed me with her most endearing of terms: Ma poulette. It was, I knew, what she called her own daughter and granddaughters. We learned to speak together as she resurrected stock phrases buried since her girlhood English classes, 70 years earlier. “I love my teacher,” she’d blurt out, and we’d both double over with laughter. I bumbled along in my unstudied French, but she was genuinely pleased when I began to speak with a southern accent or accent du Midi, much like her own.

In France, Mother’s Day comes two weeks after it does in the United States. For a motherless daughter like me, this is a welcome buffer. Friends back home are readying to fete their own mothers, or be celebrated as mothers themselves. Those without mothers navigate an onslaught that is both heart-felt and commercialized. I instead pass a quiet day remembering the woman whose passing left a permanent ache in my heart. That will never change.

This year, I’m spending the day at Mimi’s house. We’re running errands, preparing meals, and took a long, sun-bathed walk along the sea. It has been some months since I’d seen her, and we haltingly catch up: Family, work, travels, and adventures in marriage to her beloved son. Lots of talk about American and French politics: Trump versus Macron! It is a cacophony of English, French, and the occasional expression in Occitan, Mimi’s first language. By now I’ve turned her into a student of African American history, this year passing along Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race, just translated into French. This conversation we keep ongoing, always reaching for more understanding.

What she gives me, my belle-mère, feels a lot like a mother’s love. And, it is beautiful.