Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Take Two, They're Small!"

" ...Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.
Ruth 1:16b

I will never forget the very first time I met my mother-in-law. I don't remember the date, but I do remember it was just before Christmas. I don't remember anything that I said while standing in her kitchen, but I remember being mesmerized by her earth tone-patterned vinyl flooring. So many interesting patterns seemed to pique my interest, and frankly, I was far too petrified to look her in the eye! Stepping on the squares as though I were playing checkers, I could not stop TALKING! I hear some people get quiet when they're nervous. This is an affliction I am praying for! When I'm nervous, my mouth seems to have a stuck accelerator and no brakes! I can only imagine what she was thinking. Here I was, the very first girl Alan (who was not only her youngest child, but also the shyest) had ever brought home, staring at her floor and chattering like a chipmunk who had eaten espresso beans. Bless her heart, she invited me to stay for dinner anyway. In hindsight, I wonder if she hoped that would shut me up ...

Even though I was understandably nervous to meet the mother of the soft-spoken, adorable cowboy who had stolen my heart, I felt completely comfortable in their home. I think everyone does! Alan's mom has quite a few memorable sayings, like her father before her. If you're in her doorway for more than forty-five seconds, she's certain to offer you a cookie. Barely 5'4", she somehow seems to stretch an extra foot taller when retrieving the vintage Tupperware containers atop the refrigerator. As she lifts off the lid, she always says, "Take two, they're small." She says this no matter what size cookie she's made or how much you've just eaten. It also doesn't matter if you are a small child or a woman on a diet; this phrase is inevitable! Should you politely refuse (and frankly, you are out of your MIND if you do!), she'll gently urge you to have one saying, "Aw, come on. It's good for what ails ya!" Our first meeting was no exception to that rule. :)

After snagging a few cookies of his own, Alan offered to give me "the grand tour" of their home. While walking down the hallway with the most amazing sugar cookie I had ever eaten in my hand, I thought to myself, "I really like her. I sure wish I could have shut my mouth! I hope I didn't blow it."

When dinner came, I did my best to keep my mouth busy chewing, so as not to have another "blab-a-thon." Sensing my unrest, M.I.L. took a candy cane reindeer from a Christmas-themed centerpiece, walked it over by Alan and made it say, "Alan, I want a carrot!" Having grown up in a home where candy canes were not permitted to talk at the table (reindeer or otherwise), I stifled a giggle. Shaking its googley eyes at me, the reindeer asked me what I thought was so funny, while MIL winked at me. My sweetheart looked at his mother, unfazed, and handed the carrots to her. Once I began to relax, I'm sure I talked far too much and put my fifteen-year-old foot in my mouth several times, but I continued to come back. Sure, it didn't hurt that her son lived there and I was too young to go out on dates so we could only go to each other's homes and churches, but I continue to sit at her kitchen table to this day.

I could write for pages just about her homemade cookies, doughnuts, cobblers and pies, but that really doesn't capture her essence. She isn't one to start up a conversation with a stranger, but once she's met you, you are treated like family. She doesn't shy away from sharing her opinions, but usually prefaces them with a wink and a statement like, "But who listens to mother? Nobody. Go do what ya like, hon." or, "What a crabby, bossy old grouch I am. Too bad you're stuck with me, eh?" :) Her mixture of traditional homemaker mixed with a sprinkle of sass and a stubborn streak a mile long makes her a whole lot of fun ... and somebody you don't want to make mad! ;) If she were likened to a television character, she'd be Ethel Murtz mixed with Claire Huxtable with a pinch of Dorothy Zbornack. (If you don't know who any of these characters are, you are either under the age of 30, male or have an aversion to the Hallmark channel. A quick "google" may be in order before you read any farther! :)) I treasure our relationship because I know I am free to be myself around her, yet I will still get a perspective I might not have seen before. She has taught me the art of respectfully standing my ground.

She enjoys decorating for every holiday under the sun-- especially Christmas and Easter. This time of year, there are flowers, baskets and bunnies everywhere you look-- including the bathroom, where the "bendy bunny" is mischievously contorted by her sons when they visit. Many people enjoy "sophisticated" decor for special occasions, giving holidays a "stuffy" feeling. My mother-in-law's decor style is a true extension of her; amongst the doilies from her late mother and candles in dainty holders, you always can find silly decorations that sing, jingle or do something unexpected. Being the mother of three boys (and my poor sister-in law), she seems to enjoy subtle silliness to break the monotony. While that little pink rabbit is usually sitting by a box of tissues or a candle when they first arrive, it isn't long before he is dangling by one leg from a towel rack, has his head peeking out of the medicine cabinet or appears to be scaling the shower curtain. I'm certain she would be disappointed if they left it alone, it's almost as though she's baiting those crazy boys of hers! She's taught me a lot about mothering little boys; the most valuable lesson being that you can embrace the insanity of all that testosterone and still maintain your femininity.

Whether you need to hem a pair of pants or you're too exhausted and overwhelmed to the Lactation consultant alone, she's your go to gal. (Not every one's mother-in-law would sit in on an LC appointment to support their daughter-in-law, even though she'd formula fed all four of her children, but mine did!) If you ever need anything, from a band aid to a needle and thread, it can usually be found in the confines of her purse. She has cough drops, mints, gum, tissues, ibuprofen, snack bags for spoiled grandchildren, paper clips ... and it's not even that big! It's like some sort of "Swiss Army Purse." Her preparedness, she explains, has come from many years of mistakes. While I have gleaned much from her advice over the years, I have probably learned the most from her shared mistakes. Everyone needs a safe place to admit that you just don't have it all together.

From the first meeting, I enjoyed her company, but it wasn't until my wedding shower that I finally knew what to call her. Even though the whole neighborhood seemed to call her "Grandma" or "Miss Phyllis," I had been stuck in this wonky title purgatory. I couldn't just call her "Phyllis;" she was my boyfriend's mother. I respected and loved her, and frankly, I had seen her boys make her mad, and I wanted to stay on her good side! ;) I couldn't call her "mom" yet, I hadn't earned that right. "Mrs. Munson" sounded like a substitute teacher. I often ended up calling her, ma'am, which I'm pretty sure felt awkward for both of us! One beautifully wrapped present changed everything ...

As I sat in the formal living room of my piano teacher (who was also the music pastor's wife), surrounded by childhood Sunday School teachers, ladies from church and immediate family members of both myself and my hubby-to-be, I opened the card from my future mother-in-law. In a sweet, heartfelt card, she added a note that read: "A little something for those nights when you feel like hiding!" I didn't know what to expect, but I opened the package, anyway. As I pulled away the tissue paper, I saw a large Pyrex bowl with something inside of it. Unsure of what the dark green material inside could possibly be, I held it up ... only to discover that she had put silk camouflage pajamas in a salad bowl at my church shower! With a very red face, I turned to her, knowing she had just given me more than her signature practicality with a hint of silliness-- she was treating me like one of her own. The next two words I uttered felt natural and freeing; "Thanks, MOM!"

In the fourteen years I've been "One of her kids," I have been given my share of silly gag gifts, helpful kitchen hints, doses of truth when I needed it (notice, that does not say when I wanted it-- proof that she treats me like one of her kids!), countless meals, and emergency baby-sitting services. I'll never be the "Suzie homemaker" that she is, and she says my schedule makes her dizzy! In spite of our differences, we are bonded in familial love, and in the body of Christ. She didn't just raise a loyal, caring man who makes me laugh, she brought my husband up in the knowledge and love of The LORD. Having that common bond, both in our marriage and in our family, means the world to me. This coming Easter Sunday, I know that as we sit together for the family meal (in spots most likely marked with bunny place cards), we will join in praying, "Come, Lord Jesus" together. I know that as my mother-in-law sips her morning coffee, she will be reading her morning devotionals with my father-in-law at the kitchen table. My children are truly blessed to have four grandparents who not only love (and spoil) them, but they actively pray for them and nurture their walk with Jesus.

As I continue trying to figure out what kind of wife and mother I want to be, I am so thankful for two incredible examples who offer me the best of themselves to learn from, all the while, accepting me for who I am and where I'm at.

Mom M. is not one to make a fuss about anything she does; in fact, this post will probably embarrass her a little. Knowing her, she'll probably thump me playfully on the side of my noggin and hug me when she reads this. The fact that she does so much with so little asked in return can occasionally cause those of us who love her to take her for granted. I want her to know that all those times I drop off my kids while running late for a doctor's appointment, grab a cookie and run out her front door, I'm thankful for a safe and loving place to take my kids. There are so many times when she asks about my life and I forget until the last two minutes of our phone conversations or visits that she's had major medical tests or other stress in her life. I don't tell her I love her nearly enough.

This is why I need my Lenten "pause," that I might slow down and remember. My life is so full of so many giving people whom I often forget to thank, writing about all of them might mean giving up facebook until I'm a grandmother myself! I know I'm not alone in this, we are rushed people. Our gratitude often never leaves our thoughts, a place where it blessed us, but not those who need to hear it most! Whether it's your mother-in-law, a matriarch at church, an extra-special auntie or a caring neighbor, I'm sure there is someone in your life who needs to hear what they mean to you. This post may even cause you to think about writing a card or making a phone call. May we all slow down long enough to thank those who slow down their busy lives to help us!

In Lenten Love and Friendship,

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