I am sitting on the deck of an old log cabin facing the San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. My husband spent nearly every summer of his childhood here. He and his siblings didn’t have television. They had books and board games and horses and forts they built from fallen branches. They also had parents who gave them the chance to run free—to explore acres and acres of prairie land, to wander through Aspen groves and climb nearby mountains.
We are here now to visit my mother-in-law, Jean, who is in Flagstaff. She isn’t well enough to visit the family cabin, but I hope to see her soon. I want to tell her what I wish I had told her a long time ago. I want her to know what she has meant to me.
I was just 24 when I met her, and like many future daughters-in-law, I was nervous and worried about making a good impression. But Jean welcomed me with a warm smile and open arms, and immediately put me at ease. I soon discovered that unlike my friends who had mothers-in law who left them feeling insecure and inadequate, my mother-in-law accepted me unconditionally. Her love, and more importantly her patience, has never wavered. How else could she have managed to refrain from getting upset with a daughter-in-law who decided to wait 11 years before giving her a grandchild!
Jean is gifted with the skills advice columnists try so hard to instill in less-abled mothers-in-law. As my mother-in-law, she seemed to instinctively know what to do from the beginning. She didn’t tell me how to raise my child or offer house-cleaning tips (and I have never been tidy). Instead she lavished me with kindness and praise. As if that wasn’t enough, she took me and my husband on vacations to fabulous resorts, giving us private suites and encouraging us to order room service and a massage if we so desired.
When my son was born, she lavished him with the same attention. She followed his interests, giving him chess books, building blocks and science sets. Although he was shy, Jean was the first person outside of immediate family with whom he willingly bestowed with a hug. She has continued to express pride in his accomplishments, both big and small.
Raised in Texas, Jean has always had an unprecedented amount of Southern charm. She is a sparkling conversationalist, someone who takes an interest in what others have to say, whether they’re talking about politics or the virtues of adopting a feral cat. She’s an avid reader, the person who introduced me to Barbara Kingsolver’s books and a host of others.
Through her work as a community activist, she has inspired me to do more in my own neighborhood. She opened an animal shelter, ran a bookstore, and has worked hard to keep our natural landscape free from development. Yet, with all that she has accomplished, Jean prefers to shine the light on others. Like a successful politician with a wealth of Dale Carnegie wisdom, Jean will ask what you’ve been up to before she talks about herself.
They say that a man often marries someone who is like his mother, and if that’s the case, I know I’ve fallen short. What I can say to my mother-in-law is that I’m doing the best I can with her grandson. I see now how challenging it is to raise a family, and she had six kids, as well as countless dogs and at least one skunk! My respect and admiration for her and my father-in-law has increased with every passing year.
I know I am tremendously fortunate to have the best mother-in-law in the world. She has given me the blueprint I will need when my own son gets married. I want to thank her for everything she has done for me, and most of all, for always making me feel a part of her family.