Down Memory Lane: Ilene Dettmann in the same-model Model T she learned to drive when she was 12.

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!

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  • Diane Dettmann May 12, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Ellen Sue, interesting similarities in our stories! Sorry to hear of the loss of your-mother-in-law. What a long life she had! I had only spoken on the phone with my husband’s mother before I met her the first time the day of my retirement party. I miss her too. By the way, my husband’s name is also Allan. 🙂 Hope you had a wonderful day!

  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson May 12, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    similar circumstances. married (2nd time) @ 66 with a 97 year old mother-in-law who died @ 105 last ear. i miss her because i met her when i met alan and they were like a packaged deal. glad i had this opportunity, as my mother in law from marriage #1 was not nice to me for 30 years! ellensue

  • Diane Dettmann May 10, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you, Suetiggers, for the heart warming comment. My mother passed away at the age of 66, way too young. I still miss her deeply. Blessed with two wonderful mother-in-laws in my life, they loved me like their own daughter and inspired me in so many ways. Both were kind, loving and a joy to know. Good question, where ARE those father-in-law jokes?

  • suetiggers May 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Lovely… Reading this makes me think about all those stupid, misogynistic jokes that male “comics” used to tell,…so many mother-in-law jokes.
    I loved my mother-in-law. She was someone I enjoyed and admired. Where are the father-in-law jokes? And you know there had to be at least some cantankerous, mean-spirited, arrogant old men.
    Nice to read about a wonderful woman, Ilene and a daughter-in-law who knew she was worth loving.