A lunch counter advertises a “mother-in-law sandwich” made of cold tongue and sour pickles. Perhaps the owners never knew a mother-in-law like mine, whom I lovingly called my “mother-in-love.”
When my husband announced to his mother that he was going to marry me, a five-foot-nine blonde, she replied, “She’s a lovely girl, but isn’t she a little short?” We have laughed about that since. I suppose there had to be some shortcomings in a girl who was to take over the number one spot in her son’s life—he with the straight A’s and straightened teeth who, largely because of her efforts, had sailed smoothly through the storms of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. She had sacrificed for him by selling her cows and their cream, her sheep and their shearing, to put him through medical school—and he had turned out to be her idea of an ideal man.
But luckily for me, she didn’t require that he marry an ideal girl. She accepted me and loved me immediately and unconditionally for everything I was—and for some things I wasn’t.
At our wedding shower, she gave me the strings she had cut from her kitchen apron, symbolizing that she would let him go. And she did. She didn’t bring pots of hot soup regularly to our house to make sure that he had a good square meal. She didn’t arrange his dental appointments for him.
She didn’t always remember my birthday, but she did better than that: She remembered me kindly and gave me the most precious gift of all—her confidence that I could handle my life with her son and her grandchildren.
I don’t remember getting any advice about my interior decorating. In fact, she often complimented me about the color of my sofa and the arrangement of my furniture. Once I bought a chair and decided later that I hated its color. She suggested that she trade one of hers for it, if I liked that color better.
She didn’t give us unsolicited advice about how to handle our children, either. Once I asked her opinion about the size of an ideal family. She assured me that my inspiration, together with my husband’s, was the best guide.
I never learned through my mother-in-law about a new piano, car, or carpet another of her children had purchased. When she was at our home, she talked about my children and my chairs. Long before her death, I noted in my journal that I had never heard her utter an unkind word in my home about another member of her family. Consequently, I was comfortable that my name and my family secrets were safe with her.
She gave us her time. She listened to our music. She laughed at our jokes. She lavished us with approval. She didn’t require that we make a given number of visits or telephone calls to prove our love or to pay off our obligations to her. We visited her when we wanted to because we wanted to.
In her later widowhood, when the hours were long and the visits sometimes too far apart, she would greet me at the door with the words, “Oh, good, it’s you again.” Or if I invited her to visit us for a holiday, and another family member had already invited her, she would remark, “How kind! You make my good luck pile up on me!”
She didn’t make me feel obligated to iron her clothes, paint her house, cut her grass, or run her affairs. She took pride in her independence, and I took pride in her self-reliance. When I surprised her by dropping in to wash her walls or clean out her furnace room or drive her to the store for groceries, she entreated me, as Naomi did Ruth of old, “Go back to your little family, dear. They need you.” She asked me in a hundred ways, “Why will you go with me?” (See Ruth 1:11–12.) My sincere answer was, “Because I love you.”
One Mother’s Day I went to put geraniums in her planter box. I asked if she had a pair of work gloves. Disappearing for a moment, she returned with a new pair of white dress gloves. “I just need a pair of old gardening gloves,” I objected. “These are too good for me.”
“Nothing is too good for your hands,” she replied.
Those were the last words she spoke to me. While I planted, she slipped quietly away.
With deep appreciation for and devotion to a “mother-in-love,” I can say with Ruth of old, “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:16.)