My mother died when I was a young mom with preschool children. It was a huge loss. For the rest of my life, my mother-in-law would be my only mother. Kathryn has been gone for nine years now, but I find myself saying to my husband, “I still miss your mom.” I miss her sweetness and her spirituality. I miss her family stories. I miss the way she empathized with me as another woman, even expressing that my husband was behaving a little too much like his own father. I miss sharing life with her . . . the birthdays and Christmases and summer vacations.
My mother-in-law and I never had an argument. It wasn’t because we couldn’t have had one. We “got along” simply because she chose to be the adult and absorb me. She never made a fuss, always choosing peace over getting her own way. “No one knows grandma’s toothache,” means it’s hard when you’re young to understand an older woman’s pain . . . especially the pain you unknowingly cause. I see it now.
Kathryn was a worker bee. She killed herself cooking in anticipation of all of us finally coming back home for holidays. When we returned to our homes in states far from her, she felt depressed. I get that now. But, back then, I probably didn't.
At my home, she loved me in practical ways; organizing my pantry—labels facing out--helping with laundry, cooking and talking as we did life together. Helping her in her home was more problematic for me. It meant learning her systems (dust cloths are in the plastic bag on the second shelf of the closet in the guest bedroom) EEK!
We shared a love of learning and travel. We went to France together and I cherish her detailed log of the trip.
As we aged the lean in our relationship began to shift. She was widowed. I admired how she continued to be involved—teaching adult Sunday School, faithfully attending her missions’ circle, even entertaining. But she became more fragile, often holding my hand as we walked, running errands with me so she would not be left alone in my home. She began falling often and we learned she was suffering from congestive heart failure.
Her last Mother’s Day was just weeks before she died. My sister-in-law, Carol (a nurse) came to care for her in her final months. It was a gift that meant she was able to stay in her own home.
Steve and I made the trip to Ohio that last Mother’s Day. We brought patio furniture and flowers for her condo deck. How could we brighten her day? “Mom, would you like to go see all the old neighbors in the houses where we lived?” Steve asked. She said she would like that. He scooped up her little body and carried her out to the car. Spring was in its height of color. People with small-town hospitality invited her in to see her old homes, even though she didn’t know them. Former neighbors came to the car, so happy to see her again. She got caught up on everyone.
We brought her back home, happy and exhausted. Steve carried her to her bed. When we left that evening, we knew we were close to saying goodbye forever. She sensed the unspoken sadness between us.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she said, holding her son’s hand. “This was the best Mother’s Day ever. It couldn’t have been better.”
She gave us a gift with those last words. More than a thank you, it was a blessing. We’d made her happy. It was good to know. Perhaps she guessed as we aged we would be more aware of the disappointments and loneliness we had sometimes brought into her life. Misunderstandings and our failure to understand her challenges in her later years, paled because her love for us was stronger than any of those things. In her opinion, just our presence, just our being there made it close to being the best Mother’s Day ever.
Our relationships with our mothers are not perfect, or Hallmark, or Norman Rockwell. In-law relationships particularly require a skill set similar to translating foreign languages. There are issues, misunderstandings and occasionally hurt feelings. As I take on the new-to-me role of grandmother and occasionally have my own “toothaches,” I remember Kathryn’s gift. Be adult, Valerie, you are the older one.
All of us should value the importance of just being there. Mother’s Day is the day to get over the other stuff and be as present as we can in each other’s lives.
Love is stronger. We just have to let it have its day.