Thirty Years of Thank You

Q: What do you do if you miss your mother-in-law?
A: Reload and try again.

That’s one of my favorite mother-in-law jokes, which I tell with impunity here because I actually love my mother-in-law. In fact, as I sat down to ponder the subject of gratitude and who I am grateful to have in my life, hers was the first face that popped into my head. Truth be told, I also thought of my dog, which led me to consider what my MIL and my terrier have in common, besides a passion for dark meat turkey. I reckoned they both come whenever I call them and they both let me know how much they love me all the time.

The fact I “got” Barbara simply by marrying her son is a total bonus. For three decades, she has spoiled me with kindness, not to mention skillets full of crispy brown rice and wheat berries (my fave) and buckets of hot fudge sauce (my other fave). Without preaching, she’s taught me much about being a good mother, starting with a frank discussion before I was even pregnant. “I saw a therapist to work through the issues I had with my parents before I became a parent myself,” she said. “It helped me and I think it’ll help you.” She was right.

When I gave birth to my first child, Barbara flew in to lend a hand. For some of my friends, a descending MIL is akin to the emergence of the antichrist. But for me, Barbara was a godsend. “I’m here to take care of you so you can take care of your baby,” she said when she arrived. She was my chef, my errand-girl and my bouncer, guarding the door with a vengeance against well-meaning but premature visitors. She followed me around with glasses of ice water to make sure my milk supply stayed strong. She stocked my freezer with stew. In between all of that, she made curtains for my laundry room. And she never made me feel anything less than the best new mom in the world, despite my cluelessness. When she left after three weeks, I cried. But here’s what I remember most about her visit: The two of us standing over the sink, each holding one of my baby’s scrawny ankles as we hosed off the green poop that covered him from head to toe, both of us shrieking with laughter.

In many ways, that scene is emblematic of my relationship with Barbara and the reason why I’m so grateful for her. It’s her unique mix of competence and humor combined with a total lack of pretense that makes other people — and especially me — feel competent too. She is the rare pure giver, never expecting anything in return except the satisfaction of making someone else feel good.

Not long after I got married, Barbara and I were in a car. I was driving with one hand on the wheel, my other hand resting on the console between us. She reached over and touched the back of my hand, letting her fingers rest there. I froze as my brain struggled to identify this sensation that was at once foreign and familiar. Then I realized: This is what it feels like when a mother touches her child. I hadn’t experienced a touch like that since my own mother died ten years earlier. And while I couldn’t absorb the pleasure of it that day, I’ll never forget how good it felt to be offered that gift again.

To watch my mother-in-law harness her ADHD scattered-ness into a juggernaut of industry is something to behold. You’d better get out of the way or get swept along for the ride, though that’s starting to change. I’m not giving up her secrets when I say that Barbara’s memory is getting fuzzy and her balance a bit off. We laugh about that but it saddens me and it probably frightens her. I find myself resisting the urge to be angry with her for leaving me little by little. And I want her to know that when she needs my help as I have so often needed hers these past thirty years, she can count on me.

I’d be grateful for the chance.

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