A Life Well Lived: Lessons From My Mother In Law

When I planned to ask Glo to get married more than twenty years ago, I made an important phone call first. I spoke with Glo’s mom in California and asked if this guy from Boston could have her blessing to marry her daughter.

She agreed.
And my life was never the same.

How lucky for me to be adopted into a second family. It would be a new chapter for me, for Glo, for my family, for her family, and her mom who had immigrated to the United States from Central America to raise her family here.

Gloria Estela Melendez a woman who made her own American dream.

I’d soon learn that working hard was her trademark. Taking pride in everything done, for years the backbone of the facilities team at Loyola Law School in downtown Los Angeles. Pride in her work. Pride in her family, especially in raising her three children Gloria, George, and Vanessa and getting them off to college and starting their own lives. Her own graduation photo posted prominently on the stairs, followed by each of her children’s graduation photos in order. She was tough on them growing up. She was tough and expected the best from her kids. She demanded the best. Catholic school. Cleaning the house on Sundays after church. That house, the wall to wall blue carpet, always spotless. Always.

No TV for the kids in the bedroom either. (I’ve heard the stories of how they snuck the little TV under the covers)

I was in college when Glo and I began dating and we made that first trip to the west coast to meet Glo’s family. A college sophomore who found the love of his life, and her family. On that first trip they took me, a guy who hates amusement rides, to Six Flags Magic Mountain. Just to mess with me I think. Batman was first. They STILL get a laugh remembering my pasty scared to death complexion. I tried to get off the ride and the operators clamped me down with a traumatic thunk of the restraint and sent me on my way. Just an 8 story drop hanging from your shoulders. Five more roller coasters that day.

I’ve never gone back to Six Flags.
But I was officially in the family.

And our family kept busy. Over the years, traveling as a family to the east coast, to New York City at Christmas, to Washington DC and the White House, to National parks, to the lush forests of Hawaii. And yes, I’ve heard how she heated up food in the hotel room on that trip using a clothing iron. Always practical.

Food? Oh have we eaten.
We’ve broken bread, and pupusas, and latkes, as our two families mixed our heritages. Her juicy holiday turkey sandwiches are legendary with the turkey, lettuce, mayo, toppings, and then her homemade salsa on top soaking into the bread. That salsa belonged on store shelves. Always cooking a meal for someone. Her side hustle as a caterer with her friend Grace always had me thinking that the side hustle would one day be the main hustle.

I knew it was meant to be a long time ago when I learned that she and I both shared the same birthday. September 16th. Mother in law and son in law. What are the odds. For years, we’d celebrate together with the family in September 16th. Only recently did I learn her birthday is really September 17th and we’d been wrong all those years. I still wished her a happy birthday on the 16th. That’s our day.

I think it was the weekend of her retirement from Loyola Marymount, she got the same news of her cancer diagnosis. This self-made woman, the product of her own American dream, battling a rare cancer. It was an unfair twist for someone who’d worked their whole life and was just getting around to the good stuff. The same year, I got my own cancer news. Now we shared birthdays AND something else.

The family concerned for her.
She concerned for the family.

We got to carpool to chemo once this past year, I dropped her off at her appointment and then I went off to mine. I was happy to do it.

By now you know she loves her family.
Abuelita as she’s become known to our kids.

Other things you should know about Abuelita:

She loves her novelas.

She loves Celine Dion.

She loves a good game of Loteria.
“LOTERIA” she’d yell as she cleaned us all out.

And she loves Cobra Kai: LOVES it.
a fanatical love which doesn’t any make sense at all but there is was.

It was a guilty pleasure during covid and always the question, “when is the next season coming”? I got her a Cobra Kai T-shirt at the mall a couple of weeks ago hoping we could reminisce about the “All Valley Invitational” until the next season. Sweep the leg.

As her cancer progressed, she made the incredibly brave decision to stop treatments and go home, to be with her family, no more doctors and no more needles. Her family especially her children taking amazing amounts of care with her over the months.

I got the privilege of being with her alone for the whole day in the hospital waiting for her release that day a few weeks ago and I got to learn even more about my mother in law.

She wished she had traveled more. Paris. That’s where she always wanted to visit. The Eiffel Tower.

But really she told me, she didn’t regret much. She set out to do what she did.

“I had a good life”, she told me.

As the days grew shorter, family gathered at the house. She and I spoke at home by her bedside on Thanksgiving. She told me she loved us all. And especially,

I know she’s referring to her children:
Glo (Isela), George, and Vanessa.

her grandchildren:
Alicia, Andreya, Jayden, and Joaquin

her siblings:
Miguel, Miriam, Rosa, Arturo, and their late brother George

and all her friends and family.

She said she regretted not finding the word earlier in life to tell everyone. The word “love” had evaded her. But now as her words grew fewer and fewer, she had found the word which really mattered. If her kids read this, they need to know she loved them most of all. Even if this tough as nails woman didn’t always have the words to say it.

In that same moment, she told her grandkids that she’ll always be watching over them and whatever they do, to do it well. They agreed.

Just a few days later, with things moving quickly, the family gathered again. Her kids surrounded her and held her hands and just spoke to her. Her kids providing for their mom as she’d always done for them.

And one other thing.
We watched season 4 of Cobra Kai, and narrated to her what was happening. In her final act, she saw a Hollywood sneak preview of the upcoming season.

As I left last night,
I told her I’d see her soon, but I also told her if she was ready to leave on that big trip to Paris, I wished her love and I wished her safe travels.

My wife stayed with her overnight and called me this morning, That trip to Paris was waiting.

Gloria Estela Melendez,
my mother in law
A life well lived.

About Pete Wilgoren

Author of Dadmissions. Pete Wilgoren is an Emmy winning journalist, blogger, and author writing about parenthood, life, and other stuff
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