Meditations of a Daughter-in-Law
I HAD the curious good-fortune of first seeing my mother-in-law without knowing who she was. This happened, of course, some time before I had been invited to marry her son. I caught sight of her at a lecture, of all places in the world, and as the programme went on I found myself stealing refreshing glances at her bright and quizzical face. After the lecture we drifted toward each other, as congenial spirits may, in the confused Virginia reel of greetings and remarks. For purposes of scrutiny she had greatly the advantage over me, because she did know who I was, and was looking upon me, doubtless, with mixed feelings of her own. But I was well enslaved and enchanted before she announced her name to me.
I wish that every daughter-in-law might have a preliminary moment of this kind, meeting her future mother-in-law as a private individual, unbeknownst, with no suspicion that she herself was being scrutinized. For I suppose that I shall never get over the feeling that she and I are independent friends, luckily given a chance to meet more often because her son and my husband happen to coincide.
If she were not in the world, I should be deprived of three distinct benefits that only a mother-in-law has power to confer. The first has in it an element of the pictorial, the second of the practical, the third of reverie and dream.
These three benefits, I think, are not consciously bestowed: certainly not the first, the picturesque presentation to me of the most gracious points in the family tradition. The experienced mother of a family holds the key to all the most charming customs, the most cherished rituals, the dramatic setting of her children’s early home; each detail fragmentary in itself but significant as a clue.
For instance: it still takes my conservative breath away to observe this family’s inspired capacity for transfiguring real estate into something far more beautiful than it was. All the members of the tribe think in the architect spirit. Blueprints run in their blood. To me, before my marriage, a house had always seemed a fairly substantial phenomenon, not lightly to be pulled about. Now I have seen what can be done with a flash of imagination and an astonished carpenter managed with a firm hand. I have seen an idea strike my mother-in-law at the dinnertable, at a time of family reunion at their summer home. I have seen her sons kindling instantly with hot-headed objections to her scheme — all pencils whipped out of their scabbards and brandished with reckless points, plans sketched rapidly on the backs of envelopes, slashing criticisms exchanged across the table, lines modified, fines crossed out — and the lady of the house finally collecting all plans, all criticisms, with a creative flash, and evolving a fire-new idea from the heat of argument: an idea better than her first, different from her sons’, bullet-proof, delightful, practical, instantly recognized by her roaring rivals as a flawless thing.
I have seen her convince a rebellious carpenter of the futility of a bracket. I have seen her make a blank staring window look romantic with a trellis, and a cramped entry look spacious by removing a meaningless bit of wall. ‘ It seems to me,’ she told me once, ‘that I have spent my life in taking down partitions.’ She was thinking of lath and plaster when she spoke, but it is true also of the less palpable staging of spiritual life. Without my stirring mental pictures of her in the act of pouncing on crude materials, knocking them deftly about, clearing them of trash, and making them take on order and design, I could never have dreamed how implicitly I may trust in the similar inspirations of her son. My own cautious residential type of mind needs some such vivid reassurance before it can feel easy in the presence of the authentic builder — and judicious wrecker — type.
It is a great asset to know, through direct observation of one’s mother-inlaw, that certain traits which one’s own family might have deemed out of the ordinary have always been considered the usual thing, safely domesticated, in one’s husband’s early home. A fatherin-law might give one the same general information, but it comes more reassuringly from his wife.
The mental picture just described, of course, visualizes an important central trait. But I shall always treasure equally another sort of picture that my mother-in-law has given me, focused on a smaller scale. One afternoon early in our acquaintance I was invited to take tea with her, all by myself. As it happened, one of her adoring little grandsons had been left with her unexpectedly by his mother, who had dropped him there, like superfluous baggage in a checking-room, on her way to town. The little boy, with all the rapture that a three-year-old heart can hold, was encamped in the lee of the daffodils in the sunny bay-window, playing a game that had been invented by his grandmother once upon a time for a certain little eldest son of her own — a game especially adapted to eldest sons, because it can best be played solitaire. All the little boys of the family had played it, however, in their day; and this tiny grandson was sensitive enough to be doubly happy in playing with his father’s and uncles’ toys. They were only a collection of small tin things that would ‘pour’: a miniature coffeepot, a teakettle, a tin dipper with a nose, a toy watering-can, and a fluted bowl, most perilous of all. To play the game you were allowed to have exactly enough cold water to fill the smallest of these. From this — the dipper — you poured into the next container, and from that to the next, varying your sequence and your fractions of volume at will, and never spilling overboard a single drop. The glory and pride of the game centred upon the budding masculine joy in an accurate eye and a steady hand, the unflagging thrill of highly specialized negotiations with a tricky fluid largely forbidden as a plaything in one’s career.
It called for an imagination somewhat expert in spiritual values to invent and perpetuate that heavenly game for baby boys. In the midst of his play the little grandson turned to ask a question of his grandmother, and called her ‘Mother’ by mistake. Whereupon, remembering the conventions, he politely changed it to ‘Drandma,’ and they both laughed. His grandmother stepped over to the window to answer his question about a twist in the teakettle’s spout. And now, if I choose to shut my eyes, I can see them still with their bright heads together, gravely examining the tiny venerable bit of tinware in the sun. A rapid twitch with an accomplished hand, and the trouble was rectified; the thing poured straight as a die. Mutual congratulations followed — the entirely sympathetic triumph over material imperfections by two resourceful and exacting hearts. The scene was typical of hundreds that I watched later. Beginning at the beginning, she thoroughly knew the breed she had to handle, and all their springs of joy.
Such pictures as these that I remember are not only pretty — they are the bright window through which I understand the exquisite and ineradicable beauty of my husband’s early homelife, the essential position that it will always hold in the sequences of his thought.
One day, later, when we were visiting the family, we rummaged out a heap of old advertising matter among my husband’s treasure-boxes in the attic, and he told me with what fortitude his mother had borne her lot when he and his brothers were struck with a craze for machinery, and sent for catalogues of every kind purely for the pleasure of gazing upon the pictures of great machines. Their tastes were ambitious, and they gathered catalogues illustrating newest models of every mammoth sort. In consequence, in the daytime when the boys were in school, agents from all these companies would come out to the house, a ten-mile trip into the suburbs, supposing that they were on the trail of a ‘prospect,’ and thinking to place important orders for steamturbines, oil-well machinery, traveling cranes, magnetic chucks and radial drills, steam and electric capstans and windlasses, drop hammers and powershears, foghorns with electric and gasoline-engine drive, automatic stokers, Otis elevators, Bessemer converters, and reaping-machines. Their hostess received them all with charming apologies and light refreshments, and sent them away entirely mollified.
A comprehending mother of this stamp does not bring up a family for nothing. After thirty-five years of perspicacious manœuvres she is in a position to give a newcomer into the circle many practical points. With entire unselfishness she has given me all I asked, including her choicest and most secret copyrighted rules for celebrated dishes invented by herself. Thanks to her I am able to serve, of a Sunday night, a traditional supper-dish whose sheer aroma stirs memories of informal suppers with guests around the fireplace long ago, of far-away faces and eager talk, and of a certain active figure flitting incorrigibly about, not easily to be reduced to order — her sons, feeling their conversation wasted when she was on the wing, adjuring her at intervals to ‘come and sit down!’ To invoke the most lively memories of those days I have only to turn to certain extra pages pasted into my cookery-book, where in her handwriting I find the detailed rules that she wrote down for me one evening by lamplight at the beach.
The practical advantage of possessing a mother-in-law includes not only advice received and valued ‘points,’ but also the sense that in a dilemma there is always a court of grand appeal. For this purpose my mother-in-law has served her children well, a fact that is true of my own mother no less. In combination, these two can at any moment form an incomparable team. When my husband and I became engaged, his mother and my mother, living in widely separated towns, had never met. One day, in my own garden at home, he and I were discussing plans for the wedding, and struck a point on which we were in doubt. ‘ Call up your mother on the telephone,’ said I with sudden inspiration, ‘and let my mother and your mother work it out together.’ Accordingly he corralled my mother, planted her at the telephone, put in a long-distance call, and finally got the connection, with the two capable mothers, both laughing, on one wire. He introduced them elegantly, and then sat with me in attentive ecstasy on the staircase — while Greek, over the long-distance telephone, met Greek.
Perhaps one need hardly state that there remained, after that brisk conference, no shadow of doubt about our plans.
This practical department of a mother-in-law’s proper function is, I suppose, the traditional field for clash. And I think, though my own experience has been perfect, that I know one reason why. Practical advice firmly administered implies sometimes a deficiency in the mental equipment of the advisee. Carried to a critical extreme, it puts the daughter-in-law chronically on the defensive, for she feels that every detail of her life’s plan is being scrutinized. Of all beings on earth, the mother of married children has a right to scrutinize the world with the most apprehensive and responsible eye. The responsible eye is unwinking, very bright and clear. Its glance calls for an answer. The eye of Queen Marie of R uma nia, mother-in-law of the Balkans, is responsible. The eyes of Buddha are not.
With the glance of our mother-in-law, however loving, upon us, we are anxious to toe the mark. We should hate to have her consider us a drag upon her son. Therefore the most tentative shaft of her criticism strikes home.
The classic mother-in-law remark in my own family was made by my father’s mother on one of her delightful visits to us. Two of us children and the maid had recently recovered from what corresponded to influenza in those days. Everything had returned fairly to the normal, but certain of the usual household duties had been overlooked in the rush. We were all sitting around the fireplace after tea when my grandmother, then quite an old lady, turned inquiringly to her daughter-in-law at the opposite side of the hearth. ‘Elizabeth dear,’ said she to my mother, ‘don’t you like to have your andirons bright?’
After the shout that went up from the circle, our grandmother joined in the laughter at her own question with comforting chuckles, and assured my mother that she had been entirely innocent in her remark. She thought that the dull finish might be the latest style, and that the younger generation perhaps preferred its brasses with a little tasteful tarnish here and there. One never could tell unless one asked. But her question proved to be a paradigm remark. Ever since, the accepted formula for criticism in our clan is the halfanxious, half-indulgent query, ‘Don t you like to have your andirons bright?’
It is not only keen-eyed criticism that has power sometimes to strike panic to a daughter-in-law’s inmost heart. Nearly every good homemaker who has successfully managed her family has acquired an immense knack for what my own mother calls ‘slave-driving.’ We all used to take a morose sort of pleasure in calling her Simon Legree when we found her in this mood. ‘Now,’ my mother used to observe cheerfully upon occasion, ‘I am going to slave-drive a little.’ Whereupon we knew that some member of the family was about to be goaded on to vaster achievements and ampler fates.
A mother, with all the humorous backing of long acquaintance with her children, can slave-drive far more safely than a mother-in-law. Yet it would be a calamity if our mothers-in-law could never give us suggestions, never spur us on.
It all depends on the vocabulary and the context and the mood. From my own experience I know that the thing can, with immense good profit, be neatly done.
For illustration: I had an ambitious project in mind not long ago that I knew would interest my mother-in-law. Said I to my husband, ‘Shall I write and tell her?’
‘Well,’ said he, ‘you must remember that any idea as interesting as this will act on her mind like touching off the fuse on one of these fireworks that we used to call a “flowerpot.” You ‘ve seen them — all sorts of things flowering out, Roman candles and pinwheels and chrysanthemums, ending with the face of Theodore Roosevelt and the American flag. If you don’t mind variations on your plan, go ahead.’
I did not mind variations. I went ahead. And by the earliest possible return post my plan was doubled in value, alight with unexpected inspirations, brightened almost beyond belief. Yet it was my own workable plan still — only ever so much the better for being also hers and mine. With her knowledge of the available resources she was able to show me possibilities and practical expedients that advanced my project far beyond my dreams.
This sort of practical interchange would in itself be quite enough to keep our relationship unspoiled and sweet. But there is another realm of her influence more difficult to describe, one that penetrates to the rarely entered contemplative areas of my own mind. It involves her entire life and letters, and all her casual deeds. It is not enough to say that her achievements have shown me what can be done in the harmonious home-life of that particular family-line. That is part of it, but my contemplation is also fascinated by the entire tone and tenor of her busy days. And here is where, in the matter of benefits, the father-in-law comes in. Together he and she provide a precedent; they are a sort of College of Heralds to interpret the family mood and trend. They have blended for us, in a workable combination, all the various traits and tendencies of their separate ancestral strains.
And now, when I meditate upon them, I see them in a hundred flashing, companionable moods—planting a tree together, hatching business projects with a pile of papers between them, training up a rambler-rose vine, training up also, in belated details, their grown sons. I remember especially the ancestral homestead that they took me to visit, on the edge of the New England coast., where one of the greatgreat-grandfathers had lived in Colony days. I shall not forget the lovely moment when we all stood together at the quiet doorway of the house and watched the white sea-gulls flying over the dunes. A spear of beach grass by the pathway was describing perfect circles around itself in the wind, with the point of its blade in the sand. We let ourselves in with a big key, through the old doorway under the wide fanlight. The high, white-paneled rooms were empty for the moment, but they had been left spruce and neat, with a freshly laid heap of pine-cones and driftwood in the fireplace, traditionally put there always for the use of casual summer visitors among the scattered clan. As a very special treat, my mother-in-law told me that I might be the one to light the driftwood fire. And as we sat and watched it, it burned with all its long-stored colors of strange violet and wavering green and electric blue. The moment seemed almost like an initiation ceremony to me. The hearth where we were sitting belonged to us all: to my father-in-law and to his son by right of lineage, to my mother-in-law and to me by right of imagination, and by election into the family line.
It is a good deal of a venture, this business of accepting an unrelated per-
sonality into the vivacious family group, with all the intimate privileges of full membership in the line. Mothers and fathers of grown sons and daughters perform, I think, their very most gracious act of generous love when they ratify these nominations, and make for the sensitive newcomer such a warm and beautiful hearthside place in the spiritual continuity of the home.