She conquered my heart with her stories

In a hot, airless room in Africa, surrounded by customs officials, I filled out forms to get a residency permit.

"Where did you meet your spouse?" That wasn't hard. Neither was filling in my educational qualifications. But the next question had me stumped: "Do you get on well with your in-laws?"

In-laws? I hardly knew them. I married my husband six months after we met, and most of that time I'd spent in Paris: getting a wedding gown made, convincing my parents I was not crazy, working out my notice at the job I loved.

But I knew the in-law jokes. Mothers-in-law (to be) are always the wicked ones in fairy tales, the ones who plot and plan to keep the handsome prince away from the princess. Beware the pea under 15 mattresses, my girl (though here in Zimbabwe, the pea would be a nyimo bean).

When she was a blushing young bride, my mom refused to wear lipstick - just because her mother-in-law said she should.

My mother-in-law, clever woman that she is, guessed soon after I got here how to conquer my heart. She tells me stories.

As we bump along some muddy track or sit outside in the shade, she'll tell me about growing up here and a life so very different from my own.

She tells me how she met her best friend, Barbara, on a long train trip to boarding school in South Africa. My mother-in-law was put on the train by a handsome young man and all the other schoolgirls in the carriage nearly swooned with envy.

Only later did she tell them that he was her uncle.

One night she put on a dear little silver ring to go to a party. Her finger swelled and her cross father had to saw off the ring with a nail file.

Then there's the story of how she met her husband, my father-in-law. They went out on a blind date. But unbeknown to him, she had checked him out first at a rugby match.

In an old photo album that she has entrusted to me are black-and-white photos of the two of them picnicking.

She was only in her teens. Her businessman father sent her off to London for a year to "get a perspective on things." She and her determined betrothed wrote to each other every week - there was no e-mail then. He mailed her a warm blanket to protect her from the frosts of an English winter.

They got married and she promptly painted her mother-in-law's dark oak hand-me-downs with fresh white paint. Mother-in-law was not impressed. "That was good wood," she'd scolded.

Some of her stories are bittersweet. As a young wife - younger than I am now - her husband was sent off to fight. She was left alone with three babies, worrying for his safety. She is a brave woman.

Oh yes, we have our differences. She believes tea should never be taken without sugar. I can't stand it with. Dinner, my mother-in-law thinks, should be eaten at 7 o'clock sharp. Sometimes I start cooking at 10.

But I drink in her stories. This is the history of my husband. These are the things I will tell, at some distant time, to our children.

I didn't know it in the immigration office two years ago, but I know it now: For the gift my mother-in-law has wonderfully given me, I will always treasure her.

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