On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, January 10, 2008

What I Learned From My Mother-In-Law

My mother-in-law had a very difficult life in some respects. She lost her mother at 2 and was raised by a grandmother already over 60. Her father did not live in the home with her for many of her growing up years. She developed tuberculosis in her twenties which altered her lifestyle dramatically. She married in her 30's and had two babies in rapid succession. When the second was barely 3 years old she was admitted to a sanitorium for treatment of a now very active case of TB. She stayed there for nearly a year away from her two small children. Later she would have a third child who would be diagnosed with diabetes before he was a teenager. In her late 50's she developed breast cancer. Then later her husband developed lupus. Several years after his death was diagnosed with colon cancer. That's a life in which suffering certainly played a huge part.

I first met Ma (as I called her) when I was in my early 20's and was her daughter's roommate. I got to know her first as the mother of my friend, and only later as the mother of my husband. We did not always agree, but we did always have lively conversations. Looking back I am often amazed at the generosity that she displayed to a sometimes "smug" twenty something. I was so sure of myself, sure of myself in areas that I now realize I was quite mistaken.

She had been unable to nurse her own babies due to the TB, yet she learned to accept the fact that my babies didn't get bottles. She was, however pretty enthralled when she finally got to give a bottle to her granddaughter Amanda. It made her feel not quite so out of her depth. Yet she was the one who taught me how to do a rectal temperature, how to transition a 2 year old from one activity to another, and that a child throwing a temper tantrum sometimes needed simply to be held firmly until they calmed down.

She had been a teacher and our choice to homeschool was a huge disappointment to her. She felt as though we were passing judgment on her profession and on her choices. Yet she came to be a large part of my children's homeschool experience and ultimately, I think, rather reveled in the fact that all of her grandchildren were homeschooled and very bright.

I've often pondered whether I ever would have become Catholic if it had not been for her. The churches I grew up in had very grave doubts about the possibility of Catholics being Christian. Ma was no Catholic wannabe, but she was extremely ecumenical. Her example led me to raise my children without anti-Catholic prejudices which made them a whole lot more open to Catholic truth, and had the same effect on me.

We often pondered together the way that educational philosophy seemed to cycle around to the same ideas over and over. We laughed at the fact that unit studies were a big thing in the 80's because unit studies had been all the rage when she was training to be a teacher. Even the methods of teaching reading seemed to have gone back and forth. She admitted that she never saw herself as a good teacher of reading and was amazed at how easily I was able to teach my children to read.

What I realize at 58 is that she was very patient with my smugness. She challenged it, but she gave me room to grow as well. She made me feel as welcome in her family as the children who were born in it. At the end of her life I knew that I had had the special privilege of being not only her daughter-in-law, but her true friend as well. She coped with the various hardships in her life with determination., despite the fact that she was at heart a person plagued with fears. It's no wonder, she had fears, her life experience led her to expect yet another possible problem. My more casual approach to things always amazed her. She had to be "ready" for stuff. She couldn't go to town without dressing up, she couldn't leave the house without checking things twice. It amused her that I could head off to town in blue jeans without a second glance. In many ways we seemed like such very different people, it was amazing that we liked each other at all. Yet we did. She accepted me for who I was, and I accepted her for who she was. I knew people who had very rocky relationships with their mothers-in-law and I considered myself most fortunate.

My daughter and her cousin spent quite a lot of time in the past few years reading their Grandmother's old diaries. What they gleaned from them is the degree to which tuberculosis changed her life, not just physically but more importantly emotionally. They never really knew the active person she was in her early 20's. I knew much more about it than they did because of all the hours of talking across the kitchen table over cups of tea. Yet even I didn't realize some of the things she'd been interested in. She became an even more interesting person to me as I result of the diaries. It also made me realize where her fears and apprehensions stemmed from.
I think I understand her even better now.

I'm not a mother-in-law yet. However, I can look down the road and see that some of what she taught me will (hopefully) make me a better one when that day arrives. I don't believe that she was the one who taught me the following phrase, but it seems to me that it sums up much of what she demonstrated about our lives together: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. And that applies even when dealing with smug 29 year olds. By the way I'm speaking of myself as a former smug 29 year old. That was not meant to be a dig at any contemporary 29 year olds.


At 8:29 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

that was good.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful post. And I fixed your link. :)


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