This is a test: How many times have people you known cracked a mean joke about their in-laws? I’ve heard too many to count. A good in-law joke is money in the bank for comedians. I don’t think you can be a professional comedian without a mother-in-law joke. I seriously don’t think you can.
But that’s not been my personal experience. My story more closely aligns with the book of Ruth than a comedian’s joke. And I know that I am one of the lucky ones. One of the soon-to-be daughters-in-law welcomed with open arms (literally) and a “Thank God he met you!” hug instead of a “You’re not good enough for my son” stare.
We bonded immediately over gin and tonics on the patio. She made a mean one. She taught me how to make a pitcher of gin and tonics for parties and to this day they’re always a big hit. My mother-in-law was a true Southern gentlewoman, born into tobacco money, educated at a Southern Ivy League college. She was one of the most exquisitely beautiful woman I have ever known. Always put together, always in elegant outfits with just the right accessories, always fit and slim, always serving either her family or the church, usually in that order.
She met both her husbands at Rhodes College (which in those days was called Southwestern at Memphis). The first man she dated there, Robert Montgomery, became her second husband while the second man she dated, Wayne Todd, became her first husband. I know it’s a little confusing, it’s made even more so because both men became Rev. Drs. and Presbyterian pastors.
Wayne (her second love and first husband) was, in her words, as “handsome as a movie star” and she proudly bore him five children. She accompanied him to seminary after spending a year in Austria where he studied Hebrew on a Fullbright scholarship. In addition to being handsome people they were also wicked smart. Now, when elegant and beautiful marries handsome as a movie star it stands to reason that the offspring are also on the far end of the attractive scale. So it is with the Todd kids. Being in a room with them is like being with the Kennedys. They’re that good looking. It’s that intimidating.
Anyway, I married the oldest a little later in life. He was tall with black hair and deep blue eyes (a deadly combination). He was a ringer for Rhett Butler, right down to the mustache, disarming charm, and fearless moves. On our first date, he drove me down the main drag in Memphis, Tn., in a racing Sirocco he’d hopped up himself, doing 105 mph in a 45 and I knew right then I was either going to marry him or serve time with him, I just wasn’t sure which.
Our pastor fathers married us. Talk about your scary shit. “Do you take MY DAUGHTER to be your lawfully wedded wife?” “Do you take MY SON, do you?” (I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was so emotional he had to repeat the question and I’m pretty sure my father-in-law thought I was an idiot from that day on.)
But it was Mother Mary (as I fondly called her) who kept the family love going. At the end of my pregnancy, when I looked like I was going to give birth to a small horse my belly was so big, she told me how beautiful my skin was, that I glowed. (Mary and her daughters never looked that way when they were pregnant. They had baby bumps that went away as soon as the baby came out.) When my empty belly was, shall we say, a little resistant to leaving, she walked to the zoo with me on the weekends and introduced me to her exercise habits. She coached me on the best practices for breast-feeding (five kids = a lot of knowledge) and then bought me nice beer, explaining that Austrian women always drink beer during lactation. I’m rather fond of good beer to this day.
Mother Mary had this way of making even ordinary life fun. She had fun whether it was making hamburgers on the grill or drinking hot tea on a cold, rainy day. She loved her kids and her nine grandkids. But she pushed them, too. Pushed them hard to be well read and polite. Pushed them to be people cut from a different cloth. They were to be well groomed, well spoken, well thought of, well educated. Church participation was a spiritual and civic duty, one to be performed faithfully and without complaint. Mother Mary was the whole package so to speak.
She didn’t talk the talk, she walked the walk and modeled all of that, all the time, for all of us. When she lost her first husband she came to my house every single weekend and we talked for hours about heartache and the need to go on. I made her tea and gin and tonics. When we lost her first-born son to a stroke, she insisted her grandson and I be kept in the family fold as holidays and birthdays were celebrated. I honored her and she honored me and we became very close. I’m proud to say that we were friends.
Then her first college boyfriend reappeared. Widowed and with a flame lit in his heart for her like they were in their twenties again. They married at Christmastime and their decade-long marriage was one of the sweetest, dearest things I’ve ever seen. When Parkinsons snagged her nervous system and began to debilitate her she never complained. When it crippled her and made her drop her food she took it all in stride. She still loved to come over, drink a G&T, and enjoy a dinner with her grandson and me. She was an elegant gentlewoman right to the very end.
We buried her this weekend, on the same weekend we buried her son (my husband) seven years ago. (Why holy mystery has to keep chasing me around is a holy mystery all in itself.)
I owe much of who I am today to this quietly strong, deeply intelligent, elegant, and loving woman. While I’ll never resemble a Kennedy like her children and grandchildren do, she has instilled a gracefulness in me that I am grateful for.
I will always hold her in my heart and be thankful that she welcomed me, loved me, and was my friend. I will deeply, deeply miss her.