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Someone once said the mother-in-law daughter-in-law relationship is the toughest one to manage.
Can any other woman cook his favorite foods just like mom did or wash his clothes just so?
Is anyone good enough for the light of her life? Can anyone else treat her son with the love a mother has? Can she graciously move to second place as another woman takes first place in his heart?
I was thinking about this last week as we traveled eight hours to Commerce, Ga., to attend the funeral of my husband’s mother.
But Juanita never made that relationship a tough one to navigate. We didn’t ever live near her and my father-in-law, so we relied on visits and phone calls to keep up. But she always made me feel loved and accepted. Always treated me like a daughter and not a daughter-in-law.
She told me it was because her relationship with her own mother-in-law had been especially difficult, and she vowed to treat the wife of her only son better than that.
It probably helped that when we ate dinner at his parents’ house, even before we were married, I helped clean up, taking on the challenge of finding the right-sized storage bowls for the amount of each foodstuff left over. I found out that another of my husband’s girlfriends sat in the living room after a meal. That did not set too well with Juanita.
On summer visits to their vacation home in the North Carolina mountains, she taught me how to make jams and jellies from the wild blackberries we’d pick. Her larder was an amazing repository of jars of fruit I’d never heard of such as sea grape jelly and fig and pear preserves. She made mango pie, apple pie, butterscotch pie and lemon poundcake. She also taught me to cook the Southern foods my husband loved: greens, eggplant casserole, yellow squash, beans and rice. Those were foreign to my palate. My Hungarian mother and Italian stepfather brought more of the New York cuisine they grew up with to the table.
She was a connoisseur of hot tea, and we drank many cups together. I learned how to fix hers: one rounded teaspoon of powdered creamer and a half packet of the pink sweetener. She favored fruit teas, and hard-to-find peach always was a gift I could be sure would be welcome when we visited.
She liked to play cards: Rook, Uno, and Hand and Foot. She was a shrewd player and we did a lot of laughing. Her laugh was sweet and playful and infectious.
And she loved her husband. Theirs was a model of a long, loving marriage where each sought to please the other with gestures of love such as fresh cookies on her part or perfume or flowers on his. She packed Charlie’s lunch each day before he went to work as a carpenter and she drove a school bus. She did laundry and cleaned and kept their finances in order. He was in charge of the house and grounds: repairs, gardening, landscaping.
They were openly affectionate, calling each other pet names or flirting or he wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
In later years, as macular degeneration stole her sight, my father-in-law took on more and more household duties and her caregiving. They would balance the checkbook together and cook together, he doing the duties that demanded clear vision as she supervised.
I learned a lot from that partnership and how it changed over time to accommodate the directions their lives took them. Once, after Chuck and I had been married a few years, she confessed I was not her first choice to be his wife. But, she continued, she realized I was the best fit for her son, complementing him with my personality and strengths as we faced life as a team.
I have been a mother-in-law to my oldest’s wife, Ashley, for almost five years now. My mother-in-law gave me a legacy I’m trying to pass on.
Suzanne Darland teaches journalism classes and is director of the faculty advising center at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.