Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Lesson My Mother Taught Me at a Funeral

My mother had a couple of difficult family relationships, but probably the hardest one of all was the one she had with her mother-in-law.  (I say her mother-in-law—not my grandmother--because my mother re-married when I was nine years old. We don’t use the term “step-father,” so I will refer to him as my dad, but I never enjoyed a relationship with his mother.)  Here’s why.

(I’ve read over 200 children’s books this year, so please forgive the following analogy, but I think this will be clear.)

She fell out of a mean tree and bumped every branch on the way down.

She never accepted my mother, and she definitely didn’t accept me. During every holiday, not only was she short with my mother, but she also made rude, inappropriate, and downright mean comments to her—and the comments were generally so out of left field that they revealed how very little she even knew about my mother. Honestly, these short holiday visits could probably fall under the category of verbal abuse.

And it wasn’t just that she was mean to my mother—she was hateful to her own children also. The stories from their childhood would simultaneously break your heart and curdle your blood.

Mom did the best she could, but the visits put a strain on her mind and a bigger strain on their marriage. Finally, during my early teens, she declared that she had had enough, and the visits ended. Once I got my driver’s license, I offered to drive my dad (he doesn’t drive due to his vision) to his mother’s house and let Mom stay at home.

When I was about 23 years old, Mom updated me that her mother-in-law had cancer and that her condition was very serious. A few months later, she called to tell me that she had passed away.  I offered to keep my much-younger brother, who was about 7 at the time. I took a day off from work, made plans with my little brother, and left the funeral plans to my parents.

I later found out that they were the first to arrive at the funeral home. The funeral director, of course, had no idea what the relationship was (or was NOT), so she rushed over to Mom and said, “Oh good, I’m so glad to see a lady!” And then she told my mother that she needed a dress and underclothes for burial.

At that moment, no one would have blamed my mother for declining. No one would have blamed her for telling the funeral director to use a dress from their donation pile. No one would have blamed her for making a run to Wal-Mart and buying a cheap dress.

Instead, my mother gathered my dad and his two brothers in their mother’s bedroom, and she had them stand there as she held up dress options.  Do you like this dress? Did she like this one? Do you recognize this one? What color did she like best? (This was the funny part where she discovered that all three sons are pretty seriously colorblind.) She finally chose a dress that they all liked.

Then my mother went into her late mother-in-law’s panty drawer. She dug through a drawer of old, worn-out panties that belonged to a bitter, angry woman. She chose the nicest pair she could find—the pair that had no tears or worn-out elastic or faded color.

“Do good to those who hate you.”

A thousand Sunday School lessons could never have taught me what my mother taught me that day—and I’m glad to say that I told her so. I honestly don’t know that I would have acted in such a loving way. She treated her frightening mother-in-law with the same honor, respect, and reverence that she would have used for her own mother. Her actions that day consisted of forgiveness, kindness, and grace.

In other words . . . being a lady.