Portrait of a French Mother-in-Law: She's Chic from Head to Toe and Always Wears a Heart of Gold

By Kristin Espinasse

My mother-in-law and I are seated on the back porch sipping Coca, eating pistachios, and watching les fleurs sauvages spring up all over the lawn. Michèle-France is wearing her son's T-shirt and the words on the front read "Senor Frogs." Under the title there are four cartoon characters, all grenouilles; two of the frogs have on sunglasses, the other two are wearing sun hats—all four frogs are in striped swim trunks. My belle-mère's pearl necklace is just peeking out of the T-shirt's neckline and the combination frog-T-shirt-worn-with-pearl-necklace makes an amusing (if unintended) fashion statement. A daughter-in-law can't help but be charmed.

Earlier I had picked up my belle-mère at the train station, where she arrived from Marseilles. Pulling up to the curb, I noticed her standing there, waiting. Her short hair had been freshly colored (an eye-opening auburn); around her neck she wore a bright orange chiffon scarf. Her large Jackie O. lunettes de soleil hid her pretty smile lines, but the coquet gap between her two front teeth revealed itself each time she smiled. "Coucou!" she sang, getting into the front seat.

She had on her signature coral-toned lipstick and, when I reached to kiss her cheek, I was engulfed in a cloud of Opium. On her black cardigan she wore la broche that I brought her from my latest trip to Arizona: a silver libellule. The wings and cigar-like body of the insect were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Above the dragonfly brooch, she wore an heirloom cameo pin.

"Tu es tellement chic!" I tell my mother-in-law.
"Et oui, je suis chic!" she replies, patting her stomach, pointing out her losing battle with le poids.

Back at home on the porch we chat about tout et rien including how a certain aunt is in good health—far from reaching le bout du rouleau, or "the end of the roll" as my mother-in-law calls old age. Her entertaining expressions from the French language always paint a delightful picture in my mind.

"Il fait chaud ici!" she says, complaining of her wool pants. "I don't know what to wear this time of year."
I sit facing her in a tank top and cropped jeans, sipping my cold Coca. "I know what you mean."

"Nice shoes..." she remarks.
"Oh, I've had these forever," I reply, giving a typical belle-fille response to her belle-mère, though it is entirely unnecessary in view of our unusual daughter-in-law/mother-in-law complicity.
"My shoes..." she looks down turning two feet outward, "I've had since le Roy d'Espagne."
"Oh là là!" I say, and we both laugh. (Le Roy d'Espagne is the neighborhood in Marseilles where she lived when I met her son, almost 15 years ago.)

Suddenly those shoes represent so much to me... a lifetime or two (my son's and daughter's, combined), the duration of our belle-mère/belle-fille friendship, and the number of years that I've known my husband. The patent-leather loafers with the muted square buckle had appeared at marriages, baptisms, funerals, hospital stays, and innumerable get-togethers in between. I'd seen the shoes dulled, I'd seen them tattered, I'd seen them buffed, I'd seen them battered—effectively reflecting the mood of the epoch in question.

But today. Oh, today. How they shine!

French Vocabulary

le Coca = Coke
une fleur sauvage = wildflower
la grenouille = frog
la belle-mère = mother-in-law
les lunettes de soleil (fpl) = sunglasses
coquet(te) = charming
coucou! = hi there!
la broche = brooch
la libellule = dragonfly
tu es tellement chic = you are so chic
et oui. Je suis chic = oh, yes. I am chic.
le poids = weight
tout et rien = everything and nothing
la belle-fille = daughter-in-law

Kristin Espinasse is the author of "Words in a French Life" . Her blog, French Word-A-Day, began in 2002. She photographs the villages around her wine farm in Provence, where she lives with two Goldens, a Marseillais, and their Franco-American kids.

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