My mother-in-law, Gertrude, was one of the nicest people I’ve known. When she stayed with us, she swept the patio every day. She wiped down the counters and sink every night after dinner. She said she couldn’t do a lot, but she could do those things. One day she held our newborn son as he slept in her arms for three hours. She sung to our babies. I didn’t know much about being a mother at first, and she reminded me of the sweet voice of song.
My own mother had died some forty years before. I swore I’d never call someone else “Mom.”
But I did, for my mother-in-law was so dang nice to me.
One day, when I was about seven months pregnant, I made a casserole for dinner. And when I tasted it, I knew it was bad. It tasted like dead fish and moldy kale and rotten tomatoes all mixed together. Eyeing her across the table, I knew I had her. Even though she was always complimentary about what I cooked, I knew that, finally, that wall would come down.
She took a first bite. I could see her wince. She took a second bite. And then, when I thought the wall would finally crack, she smiled at me and said, “Why, this is…this is…so WARM!”
Warm. Well, she was right about that, for it had just come out of the oven. Temperature was the only positive trait it had. But she had named it. And God bless her for that.
And God bless her for being an extra hand with the kids. My older son cried for four months after he was born. He had about thirty good minutes each morning, laying in the sun and moving his hands to trap the sunbeams. But he cried for the other twenty-three and a half hours unless he was nursing, sleeping, riding around, or being carried upside down like a football on my arm. He saw a lot of the floor in his early days (which probably accounts for why he is an introvert today).
Gertrude would go grocery shopping with me when she was in town. And I picture her now, old and white-haired and panting, running the shopping cart up and down the aisles to keep her grandson from crying. It still makes me smile. She tried so hard.
She loved all of us, I know. But as mothers do, she particularly treasured her son, Len. One day when we were at Canobie Lake Park in southern New Hampshire, Len asked me if I wanted to ride the Yankee Cannonball, the oldest wooden roller coaster in America.
Are you kidding? I’m such a wimp. About heights. About caves. About lots of things. Alone, he headed for the ride. Several minutes later, I turned around to chat with Mom, but she was gone.
And then, looking over the crowds, I spotted a familiar hunched-over woman, back curved but chin high, clutching her black purse under her arm, following her son. She was close to eighty years old at that point. She’d had two heart attacks. She’d just broken two ribs by simply turning her head and shoulders while backing her car out of the garage. But she was going on that ride. She remembered the joy she had riding it as a girl—and this time, she would be with the one she loved the most.
I think she figured there were worse ways to die. If her heart gave way on the ride, so be it. As she got off, she had one thing to say: “It was a chance to ride with my son.”
God bless you, Mom. God bless you for being kind to me, for raising the son you did, and for showing us how to ride the heights with those we love.