March 29, 2009


I sat in the back today in our church service, as we were a tad late and the only available seats were in the rear of our chapel. I didn't feel terribly connected to the service, distance will do that you know, so allowed my mind to think about my mother-in-law, Alberta. This brain-wandering might possibly happen in a park, or at home, but in all other places I keep myself busy, occupied, reading, writing, watching, thinking. Only in church, do I sit. And ponder. And today it was about Alberta.

Her son (my husband) married my four children and I, I like to say. We were both older, but the children were not (ages 5-12) and so he and I raised them (as their father also sat in the back on his children's lives, so to speak). Alberta was an excellent mother-in-law, and was generous and giving, kind, with an occasional wit that would come zinging out of nowhere. She took her job seriously, not in the way grandmothers tend to do now--with too many trips to Toys-R-Us for multiples of cheezy plastic toys--but in the way of playing Rummikub for hours with our youngest son, or happy to take our teenaged daughter up on her offer for a lipstick (culled from my free beauty counter discards). She also encouraged our older boys to hang out with their other cousins-by-marriage, often involving long hikes to the top of peaks, late-night ice cream runs, water balloon fights and Ultimate Frisbee games.

I loved her, realizing from the first marriage, that a mother-in-law could help or hurt. I now had a helper, and so was welcoming and kind even when they'd come the week of finals in my senior undergraduate year. (Her advice for me then was to "slow down," a bit of a mismatch considering what I pushing through, but I recognized the impulse, the message.)

She died a few years ago, in May, and now that I have my own daughters-in-law, I see only too keenly what skills she had, and how in many ways I could have been a better daughter-in-law. I could have called her more. I should have sent more notes and newsy letters. I did remember her birthday every year, but why didn't I send her flowers, just because? Just because she was the mother of my husband?

I've run into stormy weather and I can't seem to fix it; it pains me. I have wondered for this past year if this is a kind of payback--Karma-style--for the distance I must have unknowingly maintained with Alberta. Do I feel guilty? Undoubtedly. However, I do allow some of missteps to be acknowledged as just that: missteps due to ignorance, or lack of understanding. Never was it calculated, as is the situation I find myself in now.

So, back to church. As I sat half-listening, mostly thinking about Alberta, the refrain I constantly ask myself in conjunction with the difficult situation arose: Am I doing all that Alberta would do? Am I measuring up? And then I apologize in my mind for the umpteenth time for not being a better daughter-in-law. I do that often. Would Alberta be proud of me?

I listened to the organ begin our interlude. Stop worrying, came the thought. And then in the first person: I am happy with what you do.

This wasn't from a heavenly visitation, there was no celestial visitor (I'm no saint!). It wasn't like that. Perhaps I just had to be still enough for long enough that I could recognize what she might say to me if she were still here, if I could confide in her and ask her advice. Whatever it was, I felt a wave of warmth, grateful for church and stillness and pondering. Grateful for Alberta.

And about the other situation? I'll keep trying, just as she would.


  1. I always love the way I am able to be more introspective, like you, when I sit in my house of worship.

  2. Usually when you're late for church the front pew is the only one left! :)

    I had a horrible first mother-in-law too, and now have a fabulous step-mother-in-law and an even better mother-in-law. I too often wonder if I am being open enough with them about how much I appreciate and adore them.

    I think church is meant for these kinds of ponderings.

  3. Elizabeth,

    It seems like you are thoughtful and open and willing to grow. That's the best that we can do, isn't it?

  4. The wonderful thing about a missed step is that you can go back and retrace that step in a different way. I believe your reflection shows that you are willing to make amends and that is a great place to begin.