It turns out that mother (-in-law) knows best

March 04, 2010|By Susan Reimer

What woman hasn't caught a glimpse of her aging face in the mirror and thought, "Oh, no. I look like my mother."

What mother hasn't heard herself barking at her children and thought, "Heavens. I sound just like my mother."

Me? Well, my hands look just like my mother's did at this age, and I find myself using her funny, old expressions: "It's as cold as Christian charity." And "There will be worse and more of it."

But it is my mother-in-law that I seem to be channeling these days.

I didn't get along particularly well with Vi when she was alive, but I am more and more like her now.

She had reason not to like me much. I had taken the first of her four boys not only out of town, but out of state, and denied her a fancy wedding in the bargain.

My husband and I eloped, and the air between my mother-in-law and me was bitterly cold until I produced a grandchild. All was forgiven when the second child was the girl she had always wanted.

From then on, she could not do enough for our little family. She and Grandpa would drive five hours to visit, and then she would fill my freezer with comfort food, squeeze the fat cheeks of my children until they were pink, kiss them like mad and drive home again.

She and Grandpa would go with us on vacation, baby-sitting while my husband and I read on the beach, and cooking up a storm at breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of the sweetest pictures we have is of my daughter, Jessie, as a toddler falling asleep face down in a bowl of spaghetti after an exhausting morning on the beach.

Vi wept when she saw how hard my husband and I worked at two jobs, two kids, a house and a yard, and said she had hoped our lives would be easier.

She wept again, this time with gratitude, when we would leave the children with her and Grandpa for a week each summer. So many of her friends, she said, rarely saw their grandchildren because of divorce and acrimony. With a daughter-in-law who so freely shared the kids, she was the envy of them all.

All these years later, I am the mother-in-law, and I am taking some of my cues from Vi.

My daughter-in-law could set my son's clothes on fire in the front yard, and I wouldn't think of criticizing her. I know too well what that feels like.

Vi would hear the exasperation in my voice at the end of a tough day with the kids, and she would bark, "There's nothing wrong with those children. Your nerves are bad. Do you need pills?" No, I often wanted to reply: I have two.

Now when I visit my son and his wife, I fill their freezer with comfort food - whether they like it or not. (I would clean the bathrooms and run the vacuum on the steps just as Vi did, but that might be a bit much.) And I dominate the kitchen like a hockey goalie on family vacations.

And, like Vi did for me, I buy little gifts and tchotchkes and send them to my daughter-in-law for no reason. Now that Vi is gone, those tokens trigger warm memories of the past.

There is one more lesson that Vi taught me that I have taken to heart: It will be the mother of my grandchildren who will make the biggest difference in my life.

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