When I was growing up, the words "mother-in-law" were often pejorative. A few newlyweds called these bonus parents Mom, but mothers-in-law usually received dual monikers like "Mother Benson" or "Mother Smith," and even with good intentions, they sometimes behaved like Mother Superior.
So imagine my surprise when my bride-to-be introduced me to her Mom -- a woman so devoid of criticism, so unwilling to take sides, so invisible (even when staying overnight at our home) that I've always described her to friends as the mother-in-law-from-heaven.
Her name was Betty, and she knew the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Somehow Betty learned my favorite foods, and whenever I visited her home she always had a QUART of homemade potato salad and at least two-dozen freshly deviled eggs in the fridge. She insisted I take some home, since they were "too much" for her.
Betty survived the Great Depression, so she knew the value of a dollar. She wore the same comfortable winter coat until it was threadbare, and when she received a red plastic wristwatch as a prize at Burger King, she wore it every day until the battery died.
Until Betty, I never knew anyone who washed and reused cellophane. When her granddaughters were little and had the sniffles, she went through the house cutting the Kleenex boxes in half, so the tissues would last twice as long.
Betty may have been a packrat, but she was never a tightwad. At 80, she refused to re-carpet her living room because "I'll never live long enough to enjoy it," but she spent freely on airline tickets. Beside visiting nearly all 50 states, she toured England, Europe, Morocco (where she rode a camel), Japan, Hong Kong and the Great Wall of China.
Can you guess what souvenirs she brought home to remember these journeys? Candid snapshots, and matchbooks. Matchbooks were always free, even in China. And easy to pack.
Betty was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She liked to work as much as play. When she was 50 and considered too old for secretarial jobs, she returned to college and earned her BA and MA and a bit of a PhD. These sheepskins guaranteed her a job at the local elementary school, where she taught first grade well beyond the usual retirement age.
But for me, Betty's finest role was mother-in-law. In all the years I knew her, I never heard her complain. Even at 92, when her doctor told her she had about one more year to live, she simply said, "that's OK." She was not a martyr, but had no time for self-pity. Hospice workers at our home said, "She doesn't need us. She's happy already."
Betty's joy came from the little things in life. Her favorite collectables were paper placemats used in small-town restaurants. She felt mats showing different kinds of birds or barns were beautiful, and often asked the waitress for a fresh one to take home and tape to her kitchen wall.
Betty is gone now, but it's no secret where she went. Last week, my wife and I remembered her when we visited a Pancake House and noticed placemats with pretty pictures of covered bridges.
"I hope they have placemats in heaven," my wife said softly. "Amen," I replied.