At my mother-in-law’s funeral I met one of my wife’s cousins. He was a very nice man and he kept in touch with his beloved aunt. When we met he knew all about me.

“I heard you wrote a book. Mama Lupe told me all about it.” They called her Mama Lupe because, as the eldest daughter in an enormous family, a great deal of mothering was delegated to her.

My background was so very, very different from my mother-in-law. I had very little idea what, if anything, she understood about what I do. (It was not always clear to me that my own parents understood much about what I do either.) But apparently she got a lot more than I realized, and she was very proud.

After Mama died, my wife found a shopping bag candy in her room, and candies in her mother’s handbag and the pockets of her clothes. My mother-in-law really should not have been eating bags of candy. Mama’s sweet tooth was a well-established fact. When my wife mentioned this to her sister who lived closer by, her sister explained that Mama wasn’t eating the candy herself. She was handing it out when she went shopping.

Once, my sister-in-law reported, they were on a shopping trip together and Mama had been giving candy to all of the greeters and stock clerks and cashiers. As she was leaving a store, one worker jokingly called out, “What, no candy for me?”

Mama was not moving so easily. But she bustled back to make sure the store clerk got his dose of sweetness.

My mother-in-law was a force of nature. And if she had your back, she had your back.

The first time I visited my wife’s parents in LA, Mama went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. This was a great honor; most of the cooking was done by Nana at this point. But for the great guest (me) all the stops were pulled out. Then I heard the banging. The future MamaGoof (FMG) explained to me, “She is tenderizing the meat with a hammer. It’s gonna be good!”

But I also got the message. Be good to this woman and her family, because she knows how to use a hammer.

We’d actually met some time before, at the FMG’s PhD graduation. It happened to be the day of death for Rebbe MenachemSchneerson, who some believed was the Messiah of the Jewish people (there’s a whole, whole lot of theology tied up in here.) Mama who monitored world affairs from her couch knew everything going on the world and knowing I was Jewish informed me, “Your Messiah died.”

“I’d better get my instructions!” I joked and started to get up from the breakfast table.

She laughed, I’d passed a test. She was a devout Catholic herself, but more than willing to be tolerant. But she was testing my character a little — fortunately I passed.

Mama was born in Guadalajara, one of 15, where her father was the foreman on a ranch. At a young age she was married off to an older man who wanted her to clean his hotel. She fled, made her way north and worked in the fields of central California for a few years. (This was the 1950s, immigration wasn’t an issue). It was a hard life. She worked as a housekeeper and as a seamstress. At the factory she became friends with a woman who had a brother.

Together they had four children and she managed the house, pinching pennies so they could all go to Catholic school (instead of LA public schools) where they all excelled (2 MDs, a PhD, and a dental hygienist — the American dream!) She was smart with her money, but also generous.

She loved being a grandmother. I mentioned how Mama cooked for me, but los ninos could have anything their little hearts desired — cookies, candy, fries (she hadn’t cooked since the steaks I mentioned above).

Her husband and sister-in-law (Nana lived with them and they were like sisters) had difficult declining years. I’ve written about it before, and I am sad just thinking about it. But, after Nana left us and Papa was placed in a home where he got the care he needed, Mama seemed relaxed. We figured she was good for another decade of telenovelas and visits.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. My wife misses her Mama, the little Goofs miss their Abuelita, and I miss her too.

Originally published at on May 8, 2016.

AAAS Policy Fellow, formerly @UMIACS (specializing in international security), did a PhD on vice presidents, interested in a lot of stuff

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