things I’ve learned from my mother-in-law

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

My mother-in-law and I are about as far apart in age, experience and culture as two women from this diverse nation can be.

Only 10 years younger than my youngest grandmother, she grew up in the thirties on a dirt farm in rural Minnesota, the oldest of eight children of Polish immigrants. The surrounding community was also mostly Polish Catholics, first generation Americans trying to hardscrabble a living off such unforgiving land in such a harsh time that I imagine some might have wished they’d never left the old country.

Education past eight grade was rare in that community, as it was in much of the rural United States in those days. Who needed more if you were just going to take over the farm or be a farmer’s wife? She was a shy girl, retiring even, but she was determined to get her high school diploma. She worked for a year to save enough to pay for the bus to get to school so she could do it.

She joined the army during WWII, a decision so far out of her normal comfort zone she still shakes her head, amazed by the audacity of her younger self. In basic training she met “girls” from all over the country, maintaining friendship with one until that friend passed away about 10 years ago.

She met and married a man from her home town she’d known from childhood. In 1954, they moved to a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and bought the small, two-bedroom house she still lives in today. She raised nine children and is now surrounded by them, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. My husband is the youngest of her progeny.

Up until a few years ago, my mother-in-law went to Mass every morning – she’s now down to once a week – and she still makes quilt after quilt for the poor with her fellow “Mission Belles,” embroiders baptismal bibs for the church, and bakes goodies for fundraisers and funerals.

This was her life when I met her and, until recently, I’m ashamed to admit that I subconsciously felt a little superior to her. I saw her world as “small,” lacking in education and sophistication, an old-fashioned woman with pre-feminist views and Depression-era ethics.

And while it’s been a few years, we had our issues. Actually, I had my issues. If you’ve read my entry about moving to Minnesota 12 years ago, my pregnant-, new-mother-touchiness had a lot to do with my lack of patience with her indirect, yet somehow abrupt way of asking for something. Often something that to me seemed insanely trivial.

“Oh, hi Molly. Is P. there?” she’d ask over the phone.

“Hi there,” I’d respond. “Uh, no, he’s not. He’s at work until 6-ish.” (Seriously? It’s noon on a weekday, I’d be thinking, already be gritting my teeth) “Anything I can help with?”

“Oh no,” she’d say. “I was just thinking that a light bulb in the dining room is about to go out and I don’t know how I’m going to reach it to change it.”

And I’d be simmering by now, cursing what I perceived of as extraordinary passive aggression (ach, the horrible impatience of me!). “Well, do you want me to see if Paul can come over to change it soon?”

“Oh, no rush!” she’d exclaim, because I had breached the first rule of the Minnesota indirect exchange: you do not rush into the actual goal of the call too soon. You draw it out, just for the pleasure of it. And besides, the light bulb was not her real aim at all. Duh.

“I have an idea,” I’d say, because the light bulb had finally gone off in my dim, East Coast brain. “Why don’t we bring dinner over on Friday night, visit for a while, and then Paul can change it?”

“Oh, great!” she’d say. “But you don’t have to do that – I’ll make dinner and you just come over with the girls.”

Now, why didn’t she just say that in the first place?

Thinking she was in serious decline recently (she has since recovered) made me reassess, well, everything about her, to really focus on why I love her so much (because I do). She is in actuality one of the most naturally wise, kind people I know, and reveals this through her actions – the way she lives her life — not just her words.

I could probably write a best-selling self-help book based on her innate, mid-western wisdom, but I thought I’d share, gratis, a few things she’s taught me. She’d want me to do it for free anyway:

  1. Forgive and forget. My mother-in-law never seems to hold onto anger or remember a grudge. Though she feels sad when her friends are less attentive to her than they could be, she gladly and happily accepts invites when they happen – without bitterness or irony.
  2. Patience really is a virtue. If the conversation above doesn’t illustrate well enough my severe deficiencies in the patience department, perhaps the fact that I created the phrase “Patience hurts you” when I was three, does. But my mother-in-law comes from a time when time was better spent on idle chit-chat with a real human being than hurried interactions via email, when drawn out niceties were not considered superficial, but necessities and a pleasurable way of being. Besides, you can’t be impatient when you’re making a quilt or bread from scratch.
  3. Do sweat the small stuff. Contrary to popular self-help literature, she knows that the small stuff, like making sure each grandchild got their Christmas chocolate Kiss from her, is the stuff that matters.
  4. Love unconditionally. This one is tough, but doable. My mother-in-law is one of those rare devout Christians who actually and naturally lives by the teachings of Christ. She actually cares about people she doesn’t know, about their welfare, and does something about it. And if she loves you, she always will, no matter what. Her friend from basic training days was a racist, bitter and uncharitable woman, but my mother-in-law appreciated her for her audacity, sense of humor and the history they’d shared. She loved her anyway.
  5. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Another tough one for most of us, but I’ve never heard her say a harsh word to, or about, anyone. If she can’t say something nice, in other words, she doesn’t say it.
  6. Do good things for others. Again, something self-help books decry…”Be selfish” seems to be the mantra of the modern age. But my mother-in-law gives and gives. Not until it hurts, though– until it feels right and good.  She actually derives a great deal of pleasure from selfless acts — regular donations of money, sewing a bedspread for a college-bound grand-child, the aforementioned church-related works, etc. — something one happiness expert calls “selfish altruism.
  7. Remember birthdays. A card, a phone call, a home-baked cake. Mark those moments. She made me a cake to celebrate the fact that I’d quit smoking for a month when my husband and I were merely dating – I was extremely touched.
  8. Cry when you need to cry. Tears well up freely in my empathetic mother-in-law’s eyes at the plight or unhappiness of those she loves, a sad bit of news or a minor catastrophe like spilled milk. But her willingness to live it and move through it is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever witnessed.
  9. All are welcome anytime, so pull up a chair and visit for a while. My mother-in-law isn’t hung up on the house being absolutely perfect before people are invited over. She comes from an era when dropping by unannounced for a “visit” was common practice, and if the house wasn’t perfect, so be it. People who care enough to drop by don’t care about dishes in the sink and a visit from a friend is a golden moment.
  10. Happiness is family and friends, not greater material wealth. The wife of an airline mechanic and mother of nine, my mother-in-law never aspired to wealth, a bigger house, more than one car. If she had, she would have been miserable. Instead, she focused all her energies on that big family, her friends, her church, and has achieved an inner calmness many of us would envy.
  11. Recycle and save everything you can (waste not, want not). When I first visited her tiny house in the early ’90s, I couldn’t believe how crammed full of junk it seemed to be — cans, leftover fabric, plastic Cool Whip containers, bits of string, old clothing, broken sewing machines. This was before recycling was common practice, and I have since learned that she had a purpose or use — or at least an intended purpose or use — for every bit and scrap. I’m not advocating we all become hoarders, but she and her Depression-era counterparts may well have something to teach us about not only saving money, but the planet as well.