She flew out the front door at 3304 Cowper Street, arms outstretched to give me a big hug. Although I did not know at that moment, three decades ago this summer, that this woman would become my mother-in-law, her welcome as she met me for the first time set the tone for our warm relationship over these many years.
I had graduated from Georgetown’s law school in May 1981 and had returned to Southern California to take the bar and start with Paul, Hastings that September. Bing was continuing on in Washington, D.C. that summer, trying to get his patients into the Georgetown dental clinic to satisfy graduation requirements going into his senior year of dental school. His August visit home to Palo Alto coincided with a JACL redress planning meeting for me in San Jose, making our transition to a long-distance courtship easier. Hard as it is to imagine a world without e-mail, text messages, chats, cell phone plans, and Skype, we wrote good old-fashioned letters to plan this rendezvous, long-distance phone calls being the big splurge.
He and I anticipated that I would get the “once over” from not only his family, but from the extended family, as well. Bing was, after all, the eldest child, only boy, and eldest grandchild of a tight-knit clan. (And let me tell you, it is extended. It took me years before I was able to keep the three Uncle Georges straight.) We found out later that Ellen accurately had picked up that we were serious about one another, although it still would be a few months before Bing proposed and called my father (another good story, another time). So there was an entire itinerary planned, including an over-night trip to Tahoe with some of said extended family, which surprised Bing, and which I enjoyed.
During that first visit to their home, I browsed through some of her back issues of various culinary magazines and we found we shared an interest in cooking. She, like my mother, is an outstanding cook. For my birthday the first year we were married, Ellen gave me a gift subscription to Bon Appétit magazine. I learned so much from each issue that I continued to subscribe to it; I still do, looking forward to its arrival every month. She has given me a few of my favorite cookbooks, especially the 80th anniversary cookbook of the Square & Circle Club, the group Ellen grew up with in San Francisco. (Their motto: “In deeds be square; in knowledge be all-round.”) If you are looking for honest-promise Cantonese cooking, look no further than this cookbook.
Ellen generously has clued me into how to make many of her Chinese signature dishes, but really, no one can make them as well as her. She knew that the one dish Bing looked forward to having when we visited was her “yee won ton” soup. What is “yee” about it, is that the won tons are fried before being added to the soup. No matter what time of day or night we arrived, Ellen had the broth and ingredients all ready to assemble and serve us. For Akemi and me still, no visit is complete without this soup.
Last May 2010 for Akemi’s first NEC recital, Wally and Ellen made the trip to Boston, their first visit there. I met them there a few days before the recital to show them around, and we had a great time. Italian food in North End and Akemi retrieving cannolis from Mike’s Pastry for us to take back to the hotel for a little dessert party was particularly fun. As it is getting harder for these inveterate travelers to travel, we were all glad they made that recital.
I’ve always been a little discomforted by the construction in English of referring to one’s family by marriage as “in laws” (or “out laws,” as Ron, Harry, and I – the three spouses – have quipped along the way). Sounds like you’re supposed to be distant, or keep your distance. I prefer the French term: belle-mère. There, doesn’t that already sound better?
Today is Ellen’s 80th birthday. Last night we agreed that we simply don’t know how the years have managed to accumulate. Ellen has been, and continues to be, a great inspiration to me, and I appreciate and celebrate her as my belle-mère.