I’ll confess these days I wince when I hear mother-in-law jokes. I wince because I am a mother-in-law times three. I have three wonderful in-law kids, and our family is enriched three-fold by their addition. I’m hoping to be a completely different kind of punchline at the end of my life. As goals go, that’s not so trivial, is it?
My husband’s mother Lillian passed on years ago. She was beloved by her children, a constant optimistic presence in their lives no matter what was really happening. We used to say that if Lillian’s house burned down, she would hold out her hands and tell us how toasty a good fire felt on a cool winter evening. Had it burned down in summer, she would have run out to the store for marshmallows. Since my husband’s father was ready and willing to spot the dark cloud in every silver lining, Lillian’s optimism was particularly well received by her children.
Lillian had a wild streak, although by the time I knew her, that streak had been tamed by five children, a full-time job and a crushing burden of housework and cooking that she allowed no help with. I watched her march daughters and daughters-in-law out of her kitchen whenever assistance was offered. Even more horrifying, I watched her stand between the stove and the kitchen table as the rest of the family ate, so she could better serve them. Although I made certain never to repeat this tradition in my own home, I now understand that Lillian loved to serve, and her meals, no cookbook in evidence, were her pride, examples of the best of southern country cuisine.
Lillian’s youth was a different story. She grew up in a small town in North Carolina but still spent time on the Navajo reservation in Arizona clerking in her brother’s store. In her final years she still remembered a variety of Navajo phrases and the musical name someone had given her, which meant sparkling diamond–a fitting description. Once in that wild and crazy period she pretended to be a reporter so she could snag an interview with Roy Rogers, and did.
In her fourth year at Elon College, WWII was declared and Lillian quit to join the Waves. She married a Chief Petty Officer and spent much of the rest of her life on Naval bases working as a secretary and raising children, but she still did handstands and cartwheels whenever she had the opportunity. She had a beautiful smile and a fierce protective instinct that meant each in-law was under scrutiny until the day Lillian died. She was a friend to everyone, but only a few people really knew her, and she was related by blood to each and every one of them.
The bonds between in-laws are tentative and sometimes difficult. Inlaw jokes can be rooted in reality, but this week, devoted to motherhood, is a good time to look at the women in our lives who have “mothered” us. I am grateful for Lillian, whose positive spirit lives on in my husband. I’m grateful she fought to help all her children succeed and cared enormously if they did or didn’t. I’m grateful that she never interfered in my marriage, and that I was able to witness the results of a lifetime of struggle to find the best in everybody. Most of all, I am grateful that even at the end, when she was in the grip of dementia, her graceful, loving spirit continued to shine, and that she passed on, still knowing she was loved by everyone who had known her.
In honor of Lillian, I’ll be giving away three copies of A Mother’s Touch, which was just reissued for the holiday. This is an anthology devoted to Mother’s Day, and my novella, A Stranger’s Son, appears there along with novellas by superstars Linda Howard and Sherryl Woods. To enter the giveaway, comment here and tell us what you loved about your own mother-in-law. (To comment simply click on “comment” on the top right of this post). If you never had a mother-in-law? Tell us about a woman who reached out to you somewhere in your life journey. Random.org will make the final three selections for winners on May 14th.
This week some of you may have entered a Mother’s Day giveaway on my Facebook page by telling stories of your moms. Although the prize is the same, this giveaway is separate, and you’re welcome to enter both, although there’ll only be one win per reader. Long live mothers and mothers-in-law, and the good influences they can have on us. I hope to be counted in that number.