By M. Jane Letty
Personal Narrative Essay/2000 words*5 minute read
“He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep,
pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
The first time this quote appealed to me was during a time of my own great loss. As I write this, I’m trying to imagine my husband’s grief at the loss of his mother. I would imagine for anyone with loving parents, their passing must be the deepest tragedy. Having been a hospice nurse, I’ve witnessed the adult children engage the grieving process, albeit from the distance of a cousin twice removed. It’s different when the relation is immediate, though. When his father suddenly passed almost twenty years ago. I met my husband on our front porch when he returned from the hospital. He was so brokenhearted, he couldn’t make the final step up. I held and rocked him in my arms while he cried the hardest I’d ever seen him cry. This time, with his mother’s passing, it was a little different. He’s quiet, but he’s always quiet. He’s quiet-er. She was in a great deal of pain, and her suffering was obvious…as was her profound loneliness after his father—the light and love of her life—passed many years earlier. He seems to be starting the grieving process at acceptance, for which I’m grateful for his sake.
I don’t have any awful mother-in-law stories of her interfering or white-glove inspections. Oh sure, she made the occasional backhanded compliment, and the proverbial birds would line up on the telephone wire for breaking gossip before we would pull out of the driveway after a visit. I knew all of that. Did it hurt? Sure, it did! I knew it from day one that I would join the ranks of the other family outcasts. No matter. I had been that within my own family my entire life, so it didn’t sting as much as it does for other young brides. By comparison of some of the stories others tell or the culture of designating the role of the dreaded “mother-in-law” as one rung above the evil “step-mother”, I had it pretty good. I wish it had been better, but as the idiom goes: If frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their asses. Truth is we barely knew one another. Wait. That’s not entirely true. We knew one another as much as our respective boundaries allowed. We did share two things in common, however; a last name and we both loved the same man. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love her. I did. I didn’t have to. I wanted to. I don’t know if she loved me, but she didn’t have to. I loved her, anyway, for my husband. What was important was that she loved her son, my husband, and he loved his mother. That’s important, loving the person who made you and knowing you’re loved by them.
I knew her a little better than she might’ve ever known. Her obituary was missing a lot of details, I thought. All it said was she enjoyed long rides with her late husband and loved her cat—both, she’s longed for for over ten years. Here’s a few they missed that I’d like to share with you. I admired how humble and content she was in her traditional role as a middle-class housewife, having raised four children, well, on a shoestring budget, mostly alone while my (late) father-in-law worked two or three jobs. There was something I found very charming about how everything was always in the same place and the family room looked like a family room; the family photographs were displayed on the walls; how the everyday china was the good china, (Corelle, white with the blue flowering vine border and worn in the center from many good meals). The simple, yet reliable familiarity about the way the family favorite, (Mish Mash) always tasted the same every time—and I would fail to copycat that dish no matter how many times I’ve tried. The sweet welcome of candy always in the candy dish; the scent of Ivory soap, Pond’s cold cream, fresh linen, furniture polish, cookies, and a Yankee candle burning was what the smell of ‘Home Sweet Home’ smelled like; how my husband’s childhood bedroom was the same as it was when he left home; how her whole face would light up and her voice would lilt whenever her son, (and later, her grandson) walked in for a visit—and I loved how he could enter his childhood home without having to knock, first. I also found it adorably curious whenever there was a thunderstorm, she had to have all the blinds drawn and would hide herself, tucked away in the corner of the couch until it passed. I imagined how soft her hands were because of how worn they looked from tending to others and how her wedding rings dangled and hovered just above the bony knuckle she would nervously twist and fiddle with them the entire visit. I didn’t mind listening to her repeat the same stories—they were her best stories and, if she wanted to tell me her best stories I wanted to hear them. She would reminisce about how once a week my father-in-law would call from Korea and how she would run from their tiny apartment to the corner five-and-dime store just to hear his voice for few precious minutes. How everyone on the block knew why she was running, made a clear path for her, and held the line open. I’ll bet the Acme Blue Willow china she gave us as a wedding gift her feet never touched the pavement, there and back. Or, my personal favorites, about how my husband walked several blocks home from Kindergarten because he was ready to go home or how he would strip nearly naked and run after the ice cream truck with a nickel or how big his head was when he was born. She raised a fine man. He’s loving, respectful, and kind to all things. You can tell he was loved, cared for, knows God. He’s also one to bring lost or wounded strays home and taming the feral or nurturing them back to life, confident that even in the release back into the wild, they know they always have a place to call…home.
Here’s my favorite picture of him, saving a kitten that had climbed to the top of a post, as proof of the gentle giant she raised.
I’d learned to be motherless long ago and to not expect much from maternal relationships. That’s not to say I didn’t privately hope or ache for a loving and nurturing relationship with his mother. I did, very much. It just wasn’t meant to be. Early on it was decided that I was defective. I was “uptown”, divorced with a young child from a previous marriage, and had good bone structure—the trifecta of doom for some of us who are brought home to meet mother. She was from a different time, one that made us both foreign to one another. We weren’t close, but our distance wasn’t filled with hateful words or spiteful acts, especially those that would incite pitting one against the other. I learned, early, that would only hurt the one person we both loved and loved us—her son, my husband. After many attempts, I’d resigned to myself that it wasn’t going to be a close relationship and chose to be happy in my role as the wife of her son and mother of her grandson. Sadly, they revealed their disdain for me on their own and he distanced himself. (Addressing invitations to weddings or other family celebrations as Mr. & Guest was what gave it away. I felt badly for him. To realize one’s own family has a side you never knew is painful, making moments like this unnecessarily tense and more stressful.) I’m afraid my own failings at not extending myself often meant not engaging her or his sisters, and eventually I stopped altogether. Normally, because I’m conscious of how my intimidating presence affects others, making every effort to put others at ease, but I have my own quirks. Among them, I can come across as cool and rigid like a stone effigy when stationed in the periphery. This is often mistaken for pretentiousness or animosity, neither is true but it keeps the distance I require to remain on the outside looking in with some measure of dignity. For this, he will keep me close as opposed to leaving me to fend for myself. It will be a small gathering and a brief ceremony. His father’s was attended by many near and far. Our son was very young, then. It was pouring rain and a gust of wind came just as the casket was lowering. Someone asked what that was all about, and our son spoke up “God had to send all the angels to carry him up to Heaven and they’re crying…like us.” My husband rode along to the after-funeral luncheon in the limousine with his mother and family members. Our son and I followed in the procession. Just as we arrived, the sun broke through the clouds and, his little blue-eyes twinkling, looking every bit his father’s son and his grandfather’s grandson, our son exclaimed, “See? PopPop made it! It’s okay, now.”
I often wish more women would recognize a less than ideal mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship isn’t license to degrade themselves, hoping to be accepted or play into the trap of arguing themselves out of what could be an otherwise successful marriage. A man will never betray his mother, and it will only breed resentment. Know that. There might be a time, like now, when he’ll need the comfort of knowing it was okay that he loved both women without failing either, that while the one woman he could always count on might be gone he can still rely on the one he chose to journey with the rest of the way. Especially when the heart’s dam breaks, he’ll know the sympathy for his loss is sincere and can find comfort in knowing the world that stops for no one will stop for him. The world will expect a man to keep working or fighting, even with a broken heart. God help the person who tries to hurt him while he’s down if you’re the one holding the world back so he can take it on once his grief is lifted.
That’s the drop of grace a loving wife must hold in reserve to soothe and comfort the heart of man who grieves the loss of the woman who made him…first. It’s important to keep pure that drop of grace. It’s the one thing only a wife can give in lieu of flowers during a time of his sorrow.
In closing, I’d like to tell my mother-in-law, the mother of my husband, grandmother of my son, that I loved her. To recognize her for having dedicated her life to raising a family, keeping a home, enduring the loneliness of the years without the love of her life. Thank her for sharing with me this wonderful man she made and for the opportunity to grow in a way only this experience could’ve fostered. I pray for her peace and a safe journey to join her husband, again. I made “Mish Mash” for dinner, tonight. And, to thank her for the lesson. Amazing Grace
*Thank you for reading. I’d also like to thank the many friends and followers who’ve extended their sympathy, prayers, words of comfort during this time. Thank you for your drop of grace. It continues to amaze me, when even the most casual acquaintances to the closest ties will stop whatever they’re doing just to reach out to let you know you’re not alone, to offer the comfort of sympathy and lift you up to let you know that someone is praying for you. That, too, is a drop of grace. You didn’t have to share it with me, but you did. In a world where so many of our core values are being disgraced, we’re hesitating to extend ourselves because we’re learning some are not who they seem, and the battle fatigue has hardened us, your generous nature to be instinctively kind is recognized and appreciated. God bless and keep you all.