Ode to My Mother In Law’s Hands

 

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.

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Wind in Her Hair

There’s a picture I’ve always loved of my second daughter running, when she was just a toddler, in our side yard.  Her hair is just like white dandelion fluff, blowing back in the wind of her joyous, headlong rush,  which has always made me think that a good American Indian name for her would have been “Wind In Her Hair.”  Something about the picture just speaks to the heart of her spirit, her true identity.  She has always held a unique position in our family, and we would all be lost without her.  In so many ways, she anchors us all together.  Like me, she has always needed routine (something hard to come by in our family!), and like me, she loves reading and books.  We’re both deeply domestic, love animals (not that that particular trait is unique to us!),  but unlike me, she excels at teaching young children.  They give me the heebie-jeebies.  I love them when they’re my own, but in large groups I seem to cause them to freak out and start jumping up and down and screaming.  Before you can calmly whisper “hush up,”, she will already have them sitting quietly on the floor with their legs crossed waiting for instructions, which she will then issue in a calm. yet authoritative, voice.  It must be magic.  I definitely don’t have it.  Maybe you could have given me a room full of middle or high school age “singers” and sooner or later  I would have worked them kind of like a lion tamer, but that’s not at all the same sort of magic.  I admire that in her.

She’s not perfect – who is?  But she’s really good.  And she tries very, very hard.  Always has.  And I still see that little girl in the picture when I look into her eyes.  She’s still looking out at me.

Imperfect Parenting

76 birthday parties.  If you add together all 4 of my children’s birthdays, that’s how many total birthdays I’ve been responsible for.  I could tell you about ….. oh, maybe 4 or 5 of them that were pretty good.  We rented a coffee shop for a surprise 16th.  We had a luau themed 13th, a Scooby-Doo 5th (complete with scooby snacks), 4 little girls decorating a huge sheet cake with multi frostings and sprinkles, laser tag and pizza for 12-year-old boys.  We made a sea serpent cake, a castle cake, a carousel, dinosaur, horse ranch, heart, and a few others that were respectable.

We also have quite a few of “oh my gosh–it’s TOMORROW!” birthdays with a gift card, a purchased cheesecake, a friend invited on the fly to go…..to go….what the heck would be open tomorrow!!  We have a lot of “let’s have grandpa and grandma over and grill out” birthdays.  We have several “both mom and dad have concerts on your birthday–could we have a friend or two over in a week or so?”.

My daughters, and many of my students, are Pinterest-obsessed.  They find, and actually make, incredibly clever and decorative things.  They show me plans for Halloween costumes, birthday parties, decorations/treats/accessories that are insanely wonderful.

I’ve got to wonder, though, how much guilt can we heap on mothers these days?  How can these women have time to raise children (which is laughably demanding), earn income (which most of us do these days), and also create these Martha Stewart-worthy events for their children?

I kind of think (I’m sure this is rationalization for my shortcomings, but bear with me) that having a mom who isn’t always looking online for new ideas, who isn’t rushing you in and out of your car seat to buy hobby supplies, who doesn’t spend late nights staying up to craft some darling table favors in your party theme colors, who just possibly has time to play a game with you, who is smiling the morning of your birthday, who doesn’t care about the smears on the front door from the dog’s nose, who is just happy to be with you on this special day—maybe THAT would be something exciting for a kid!  I’m pretty sure that the parties I think were the best are not necessarily the ones the kids would pick.  Those parties were a whole lot about me–my success–my planning–my cleverness–my ability to do this well.  Not always a lot about my daughters and my sons.  They DID have some wicked fun, but usually it was during the silly things.  Laser tag was great, mostly because we all played and Mom and Dad got shot about 3x per minute during the whole game.  Grandpa and Grandma were great because they took them out to fly kites for as long as it took to get it up in the air–no hurries, no worries.

So just sit down for a minute already.  Keep it simple.  If you really dig doing all the cool decor stuff, and you have the time, then plan away.  But if you’re a schmuck like me, don’t sweat it.  Just remember to smile at them a lot.  Be happy.  Be fun.

War and Peace Mother-Daughter Style

I love, love love my mother.  She is the sort of person that will inspire “would you believe it” stories for generations to come.  She weighs barely 100 pounds and stands 5 feet tall.  It is dangerous to interpret “small” as “weak”, however.  She is anything but.  Her opinions are many, absolute, and iron-clad.  There are no 50 Shades of Grey for my mom……not in any sense of the word.  The universe is divided up into two camps–right and dreadfully wrong.  On the right side–Republicans, Tide detergent, red shoes, homemade bread, Israel, decaf weak coffee, Ronald Reagan and G.W. Bush, Fox News, the Midwest, farmers, red meat, Protestants, guns and gun owners, John Wayne, terriers, American-made products, maps, women in dresses, McDonald’s, Christmas cards, Buicks, potluck dinners, Clinique face cream, black and white cats, rocking chairs, the King James Version of the Bible, fleece robes, Celtic Woman, handwritten letters, visiting friends in nursing homes.  On the wrong side–Democrats, liberal Christians, ERA laundry soap, NPR, Japanese cars, smart phones, any popular music, orange cats, Coca-Cola, alcohol, Obama, the entire Mideast (see above for exception), Taco Bell, China, strong coffee, New York City, pets inside the house, obesity, eating out too much, Time magazine, and……too often…..me.

Go ahead and ask my mom about me.  She will launch into a litany of my awesome awesomeness.  I am beautiful, have a beautiful home, have beautiful children, am amazingly successful at my job, an extremely talented musician, a gifted public speaker, compassionate, and I love Jesus.

Now spend a day with us.  I will be wrong in more ways than you ever imagined possible.  We go for a simple drive in the car–she has me drive her car.  I put my drink in the wrong cup, in the wrong holder, don’t brace it up with wadded napkins the right way.  I pull out of her garage at the wrong angle which makes me turn too much to miss the curve.  I take the wrong road to get to our destination, causing us to lose upwards of 20 seconds (she lives in a town of 4,000).  I don’t know how to get to where we’re going (I have never lived in this town).  I don’t remember the people who speak to us there.  I am not dressed warmly enough, I must give her the car keys because I might lose them while we’re out of the car.  I hit the remote to lock it only 1 time, not 2 times so that it will beep.  I get the wrong kind of bread/milk/lotion/nightlight bulb.  I don’t beat my scrambled eggs with the mixer, I use a peeler for potatoes instead of a sharp paring knife, I put the knife back in the drawer before I let it dry on the counter long enough, I use sugar instead of Splenda, I don’t know to spray the shower with the daily cleaner, I change my sheets when she meant to leave them on the bed, I pull the car too far forward in the garage which (she demonstrates) causes her to turn sideways when walking in front of it.  I leave the mashed potatoes lumpy, I let my children have a tattoo/dyed hair/piercings (they are 28, 24, and 21….the 15 year old is still in my control– and call their grandmother all the time and send her cards and texts and she adores them beyond belief).  I don’t manage to make my son get good grades.  I wear pants to church, I often clean my plate, I drink Diet Coke occasionally, I have an espresso machine, I listen to NPR and watch PBS, I don’t have guns and don’t much like them, I live in a city.

How can she apparently disapprove of everything about me but adore me.  I don’t know.  I’m pretty sure she does, though.

Why does this matter tonight?  Because she had open heart surgery last Monday.  Because she’s 78.  Because the weekend before the surgery was one of the worst times I’ve ever had with her, and I could barely feel sorry for her because she was so awful to be with.  Because I overreact to her, just like I did when I was 13.  Because I’ve been in the hospital with her for a week, away from my home and family and job, and she’s driving me crazy.  I’m pretty sure I’m driving her crazy too.  She behaves better with everyone than with me, yet wants me.  Because she’s not recovering very well and I don’t know what lies ahead.  I’m not ready to plan her funeral.  She is beloved by hundreds of people and is a surrogate mother/grandmother to battalions of women, girls, men, and boys in her community.  She is complicated.

My mom should have been born in the Old West.  She’s a cowboy through and through, really, without liking horses.  She likes men in charge…strong, doubt-free men who carry guns and crack wise while helping ladies through the mud.  She likes it when John Wayne spanks the female lead, then kisses her.  She could shoot 20 bad guys in a fight without flinching or losing any sleep, and still organize the first town school in her spare time.  I don’t know anyone like her, which is a sentiment echoed by everyone who knows her. Revisit the list of “wrong” things and then understand that, if any of those “wrong” people were her neighbors, she would help them in every way they needed, bake them a cake, love their children, and correct their mistaken beliefs at every turn.

My mom’s heroes are Billy Graham, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan.  Rock Hudson, her former crush, became problematic for her, but she still likes his movies.

I am confused, scared, guilty, grateful, compassionate, angry.  Am I the only one?  Maybe I’m the same about her as she is about me……I dislike many of her beliefs and opinions and most of her inflexible “this is how I do it!”  I hate having to turn around to go the way she wants to go, despite the fact that turning around actually makes our trip longer.  I hate being corrected at every turn.  I love love love love love her, though.

Goodbye With Grace

You are boarding the plane.  My phone buzzes in my hip pocket as I supervise a final.  It’s not like I didn’t know you would actually have to leave.  It just wasn’t exactly final until I received the text. And it’s not like New York is a world away. We have cell phones; email; I could finally figure out how to use Skype, for goodness sake.

But you’re not here. Not in my house. I can’t hear your breath when I peek in your room at night. I can’t kiss your sweet cheek and I can’t watch you while you’re laughing with your brothers and sister about nothing and everything. I will set a place for you and then, remembering, put the dish away.

Yes, we’re very different. No, we wouldn’t do well living together indefinitely. You are every bit as opinionated as I am (“bossypants” indeed!). We can drive each other crazy.

But I love you. I loved you when you were only a thought, a worry, a very difficult thing to explain to my parents. I loved you when you were a chubby-faced baby with white peach fuzz sticking straight up out of your head. I loved you when you cried, when you smiled, when you slept. I loved you through the silly fashions, through the anger, the shouting, the tears. I loved you when you couldn’t stand the sight of me. I haven’t drawn a breath in 27 years that wasn’t filled with love of you, and I don’t suppose I ever will.

So I miss you today. Go safely. May your pilot be well-rested. May the city be kind to you when you arrive. May you have work offers waiting. May you stop to remember the One who gifted us with this love and this time together.

I love you. When you’re so far away from me, that’s all I have left. I can’t love you with my arms, with my smile, with a delicious dinner….but I love you. Go with joy and hope in your heart, and the courage that comes with knowing there are people who always wait for you to come home.