I’ve always loved the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. If you’ve never read it, I advise it, even if you are not a Christian. I would recommend an easy reading version, like The Message or The New Living Bible if you are a starter. Just maybe not the The King James Version.
It is just so beautiful. It is a love story, not between a man and a woman, but between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. Ruth was the daughter, Naomi was her husband’s mother. They had lived in the same household for years, where Naomi was a foreigner, and developed a deep, deep love for each other. After both their husbands died, Ruth did not desert her mother-in-law, but went with her back to Israel to care for her. I like to think I would have done that for my mother-in-law, but I don’t know.
When I got pregnant, while we were still in college and unmarried, my then-boyfriend (now my husband for over 31 years and 4 children), graduated college that spring. I still had a year left. The next month he got his dream job offer, out in California, to teach a drum and bugle corp. He had aspirations of being a professional drummer, and where better than Los Angeles?
I was totally panicking, and alternating between begging him not to go and bravely telling him to go ahead and follow his dream, that this chance wouldn’t come again. And so he went. I looked desperately for a degree I could finish before the baby came. My current degree program was music education, with several courses and student teaching still left to finish. The baby obviously wouldn’t wait. Keep in mind that this was 31 years ago, in a small town in northern Missouri. Not exactly a hotbed of liberal thinking.
So I prayed about it desperately, and formulated a plan. I was really close to a Bachelor of Arts…all I needed was six hours of a foreign language, plus a couple of other classes, and at least I could graduate with a degree. That way, if I followed my boyfriend to California and enrolled in a college there, with a degree, I would only have to finish that state’s requirements to be able to teach.
Voila! As good as done! I enrolled in two summer courses: Spanish I from 7:30-9:30 Monday through Friday, and then French I from 9:30 to 11:30. I was working full-time at the local Taco Bell to support myself, so my usual shift was 4:30pm to 12:30 am. Enter terrible, terrible morning sickness. I began losing weight at an alarming rate. I couldn’t keep anything down.
My belly started to show, and my boss at Taco Bell, a deeply devoted, conservative Christian woman, noticed. She called me into her office, and asked me if I was pregnant. I said “yes.” She said, “then I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go. Some of my customers are from my church, and they just wouldn’t understand. ” I mumbled something through my tears, and rushed out. It’s entirely a miracle that my faith never wavered in God, just in some people who professed to follow Him. Hmmmm.
And school was a total disaster, as you probably saw coming. Some days the same tests would be back to back in both classes, like the days of the week, or the months of the year. I was hopelessly confused.
Next, the pastor of childhood church called me. He very kindly, offered to let me come back to the congregation if I would stand up in front of them and confess what I had done. I protested that it was already done. Was everyone else in the congregation going to stand up and confess everything they had done , just to keep me company? Of course, he hung up on me. I probably would have too.
I couldn’t think what to do. I knew my boyfriend had told his parents. I had met them during the previous spring break, and I had fallen in love with his family in a big way.
So I packed up my car and drove the 4 hours to where they lived. Unannounced. And they took me in. Treated me like a daughter. Even though they both deeply disapproved of what we had done. Even though they still had a high school son living there. He and I became almost as close as brother and sister. This went on for several months, while they let my boyfriend and I figure out what to do about our relationship. He (fortunately!) decided he didn’t want to do life without me, and I was already there (but I admit I had a powerful incentive!), so after a few months, he drove back to Iowa to get me. We went back to California, got married, and our life together started.
Back to Ruth and Naomi. Naomi must have been a mother-in-law very, very similar to this. She must have welcomed Ruth into her home like a daughter. There would have been some tussles: there always are with women. But I think Ruth must have always known how fierce Naomi’s love for her was. I certainly did.
My mother-in-law had severe rheumatoid arthritis. It deformed her fingers and feet. I can’t recall her ever, ever complaining about it. She always wore heavy wool socks and Birkenstocks or clogs all fall and winter, and in retrospect I realize that it was because she couldn’t fit shoes on her swollen toes. I just thought she was really hip. I loved those feet in their sandals and clogs.
And her hands…her fingers were so twisted, so gnarly…so beautiful. They both made you want to wince and to sing for joy to see them. And they were never, never still. They were always making casseroles, or pies, or setting tables, or holding endless pieces of toast and warming half full cups of coffee in the microwave. Or petting her beloved golden retriever, Annie, Or hugging. It was so indescribably wonderful to be squeezed by those skinny arms, and those hands.
I’m so extremely regretful that I was too busy to ever spend much time wondering why she no longer did the things that my husband had talked about her doing in the past….like sewing. She was so talented. If it ever crossed my mind, I think I just thought “Probably now that her kids are grown, she’s lost interest.” But now I’m almost certain it was pain. Of course it was pain. Her fingers just couldn’t handle fine detail work. Now, since the accident, I’m much clumsier than I was before, and I rely on several kitchen gadgets that I recalled from her kitchen. I always, again, thought they were very fashion forward of her.Now I realize that they were absolute necessities, as they are for me. . I’m so sorry that I stupidly never spent much time thinking about how much pain she must have been in, or trying to find things that would have made tasks easier. In retrospect, this seems monstrous.
I loved my mother-in-law’s hands. Now that she’s gone, I think of them often. I miss her so much, but especially her hands. I wish I had held them more, warmed them more. But I know she’s fine now and she’s telling me to do all that for someone else. So I’ll try. I’ll try.