We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. ~Kenji Miyazawa
I was in my early forties when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. Unable to walk without assistive devices for more than a year, I had a glimpse of what it’s like to be disabled….Read the rest of the story in this month’s Michigan Prime, delivered this weekend with your Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. To read my column online, please click here and turn to page 5.
Yet I felt a subtle shift in our relationship when the two exchanged wedding vows last fall.
Even in the happiest circumstances, after all, the family dynamic changes when adult children marry. Whether we’re debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.
In other words, my new supporting role as “mother-in-law” is making me a little nervous.
Googling the term “mother-in-law” last week, I found dozens of websites listing crude mother-in-law jokes and personal blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”
Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, she’s the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.
Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs.
Comfort and counsel
Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.
When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husband’s mother, whose shy personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own wise mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with one’s in-laws rarely evolves overnight.
Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dad’s mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mother’s alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator. Over time, however, Mom learned Ruby’s language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.
My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isn’t the sort who’ll need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes.
Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, I’m proud of the capable young woman she’s become.
Given such a blessing, who wouldn’t strive to be the world’s best mother-in-law?
New family values
Nate reminds me that I’m “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my former career as a family columnist. Even so, if he’s lucky enough to be a father someday, he’ll find that letting go of one’s children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.
All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldn’t meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.
But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.
Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that I’ll never compete for my son’s attention; I’ll do my best to respect her boundaries. Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our family’s future unfolds, I hope she’ll turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.
This column was first published last year in Michigan Prime.
To kick off its three-part Spring Writing Series, the Royal Oak Public Library is featuring my workshop, From Memory to Memoir: How to Write and Publish Your Life Stories on Monday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m. Focusing on personal essays as well as book-length memoirs, we’ll discuss how to avoid the common pitfalls of this popular genre. Copies of my personal essay collection, Writing Home, will be available at a special discount. The event is free to the public — but reservations are required.
NEXT WEEK: I’ll be part of a professional panel discussion on blogging for writers. Contact the Royal Oak Public Library for details.
This Lenten essay, written during my first year of empty nesting, was originally published in the anthology, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined (2005; Seal Press).
Spring is just a few weeks away, yet the barren landscape outside my office window looks more like the moon than southeast Michigan. Mounds of brittle, gray snow flank the curb, and the sidewalk shimmers with black ice. Only diehard neighbors stick to their evening jogging routines. Spring is just a mirage.
On the liturgical calendar, it is the Lenten season. According to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday,” it is the time between “dying and birth.” It is not the ideal time to face a changing identity, pending menopause, a stalled career, or a recently emptied nest. It is the time of year when, despite my better judgment, my cheerful disposition is easily frayed.
Lately my writing life seems like a long wait in line at the post office. And it’s not that I’m seriously blocked. Just lonely.
For the past five months, my only child has been happily settled in his cramped dormitory room at a university in another state. I’m still adjusting to the hollow echo of his oddly clean and empty bedroom, looking for remnants of my old self — my mothering self — in the bits and pieces he left behind. The family calendar in our kitchen has some vacant spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. I’ve become what our high school mothers’ club refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”
Empty nesting is harder on mothers who work at home — mothers who stare into a computer monitor until the garden thaws in mid-April and children migrate home from college. This age-old ritual, cavalierly termed “letting go” by most parenting experts, is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.
Heeding the advice of a friend who happens to be a local pastor, I’ve learned that community service is the best antidote for what we Midwesterners describe as acute cabin fever.
“You need to leave your comfort zone. Use your gifts in the community,” urged the pastor. In other words, do unto others and get over yourself. Which is how I ended up working a busy afternoon shift at a warming shelter for the homeless.
Answering a need during the cruel winter months, a small church in my neighborhood opens its kitchen and dining room to approximately 50 homeless men and women at a time. Job counselors and social workers volunteer their expertise to those who struggle with substance abuse or unemployment (or both). Parishioners are recruited to serve meals, scrub sticky tables, pour pots of black coffee, and perform simple clerical tasks for the under-staffed warming center.
The visiting homeless are required to wear nametags. Before starting my first shift, I was advised to call each person by name and to refer to the group as “guests.”
I have worked with the homeless in other circumstances. But I am always a bit shy at first. These people – the guests — have formed their own community, complete with its own set of rules and rhythms. Many of them know each other after weeks or months of sharing sandwiches and unrolling sleeping bags in the same church basements and overnight shelters. I am an outsider in their midst; a white journalist from planet Suburbia. I feel inept and alien when confronted by so much horrific need, yet I have come to serve, and in a small way, to mother.
My first assignment was to ladle out steaming heaps of boiled ham and potatoes to each hungry guest who had lined up at the serving table.
That day, there were close to fifty, mostly men. Most were eager to talk and visibly grateful for a free meal. I was taken aback, initially, at the way each guest wanted me to spoon his portion onto a plate and hand it to him. Not a single person would take the plates I had already filled and set on the table in the interest of moving the line more quickly.
Nearby, in a cluttered corner that served as makeshift office space for the center, another volunteer was keeping company with a guest whose nametag read “Marian.” Aloof and unkempt, Marian flashed angry, intelligent brown eyes and wore a burgundy wool cap over her brow. Playing a game of Scrabble on the office computer, she didn’t mix with the other guests, nor did she want to converse with my fellow volunteer. Her body language wasn’t hard to translate: Keep out. Don’t touch. My heart is not open for business or charity. She didn’t look up when we asked if she wanted a hot lunch or dessert. Fixed on the computer screen, she mumbled something about a candy bar she had eaten earlier, and declined our offer.
One by one, all the guests except Marian were served, and I was told by the center organizer that it was time to clear the tables for dessert. I began my assignment quickly, grateful once again for the focus required of even the simplest domestic routines.
Then, suddenly, a voice.
“Excuse me, excuse me?”
I barely heard her over the metallic clatter of roasting pans and serving utensils. It was Marian, the Scrabble player. Without turning from the screen, Marian repeated her question, more audibly this time, to anyone within earshot: “How do you spell fragile?”
Slowly, carefully, my fellow volunteer voiced the letters aloud and repeated them: F-R-A-G-I-L-E.
Returning to the kitchen with an armload of dishes, I reconsidered the word and what it meant. I recalled how carelessly I’d been using the adjective to define or describe the strange terrain of my new empty nest. And how, in a single instant, its meaning, its very etymology, had changed forever. — Cindy La Ferle, March 2005
We’ve come a long way, baby, yet our culture still honors youth and beauty over wisdom and experience. For most women, learning how to accept our changing faces and bodies is one of the toughest challenges of maturing. My column in the March issue of Michigan Prime (delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press) focuses on the debate over cosmetic surgery (and “anti-aging” products) and spotlights two new books on the topic. Please click here to read the online edition, and flip to page 15 in the Detroit/Wayne County edition.
Artwork by Cindy La Ferle. To view more, please click here.
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