My mother-in-law died the same day as Osama bin Laden. Most comedians would kill for an opening line like that. Let’s face it: The world is filled with mother-in-law jokes.
But Sondra Blewer left behind four reeling daughters when she died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage May 1, and three devastated sons-in-law. She had celebrated her 80th birthday in Manhattan not quite three months earlier, looking — in the words of my daughter, one of her five grandchildren — “as glamorous and beautiful as any grandmother on ‘Gossip Girl.'” Her quirks were legendary among her family and friends, and among the reasons she was so beloved.
She was, for those of you who have read “Before You Know the Kindness,” the inspiration for the indefatigable Nan Seton, the matriarch of that novel’s Seton family. Like Nan, she lived in New York City nine months a year, but would retreat to the ancestral homestead in Sugar Hill, N.H., for the summer. As her oldest daughter observed in her eulogy at the funeral, Sondra Blewer was still cutting the grass herself last summer, using a 20-year-old Toro lawnmower she had to push. My mother-in-law would allow me to lift the lawnmower up the three stone steps that separated one section of the lawn from an elevated patch of grass beside the porch, but that was the extent of my involvement and her only concession to age.
I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college at that house with her and her daughter, working as a dishwasher and then seafood chef at one of the White Mountain’s most solidly mediocre surf and turf restaurants. I have always appreciated the way she welcomed me into her world in northern New Hampshire. Her one question when her daughter asked whether her new boyfriend could spend the summer in Sugar Hill? “The whole summer? What on earth are we going to do with him when you get sick of him?”
Clearly, what I lack in charm I make up for in persistence. But, along with her daughter, she took me in. She wrote me lengthy critiques of my books, always as honest as my editor and my wife — which sometimes is more honesty than I crave, but always precisely the amount that I need. Whenever I would visit New York City on business, we would try to have dinner or breakfast together, and I will always smile when I think of our last breakfast together at Sarabeth’s on 92nd and Madison. The following is an abbreviated part of her exchange with the waitress:
Waitress: The frittata comes with your choice of a blueberry, cranberry or bran muffin, a croissant, a scone, a cheese Danish, crumb coffeecake or an English muffin.
Sondra Blewer: Do you have toast?
She did like her toast. She was a creature of habit.
I never called her anything but Mrs. Blewer. Worlds would have collided had I ever called her Sondra or Mother or Mom. And, after all, why would I have called my mother-in-law anything but “Mrs. Blewer?” We had only known each other three decades and change. Her Valentine’s Day cards to me were always signed, “Sincerely, Mrs. Blewer.” As my wife noted, however, I could take pride in the reality that she sent me a card at all, since she did not mail them to her daughters. Mrs. Blewer loved me, but new age sentimentality was never going to trump old school formality.
Among her desires for her funeral was to have her family serve as the pallbearers: They did. Daughters and sons-in-law and one of her grandsons carried the coffin into the church. Then, as if it were a flag, the four daughters draped upon the casket the burial quilt that she had made herself for precisely this occasion.
And while the suddenness of her death may make it harder for the rest of us to heal, there is comfort in the reality that Sondra Blewer died just the way that she lived: On her terms. She left a message on my wife’s and my answering machine here in Vermont the day before she died, and she sounded wonderful: Cheerful and energetic and, most importantly, happy. She was vibrant and vital and preternaturally vigorous until the very end.