It’s classic comedy material to roast your mother-in-law. My own could give me plenty of fodder. She’s a feisty and independent character who usually communicates whatever (and I mean whatever!) is on her mind. Ultimately, though, I find Eileen deeply inspirational because of her unique ability to “just get on with it.”
She went to work right out of high school and supported herself until she married relatively late (for her generation). While her husband was away on the battlefields of WW2 (where his jeep set off an enemy bomb, causing serious damage to his spleen), she raised her first son. Eileen’s husband returned home and the babies kept coming until there were five sons. Sadly, Eileen was widowed at a young age when the earlier war injury claimed her husband. She just got on with it, going back to work, and miraculously sending all five boys to college. She said that when she felt sorry for herself her brother the priest would say “Eileen this is your lot. Just get on with it.” So she did.
Eileen lived in her own home until age 95 when she realized it was time to “get on with it” again. She moved to assisted living, where she participates actively in her new community. In fact, this fall she was even the center of a dramatic sting operation to catch an employee who was stealing from residents!
She shed most of her possessions when she was moving but somehow my husband claimed this gem for his inheritance. Even Eileen says, “Why did you want that ugly pitcher that I got stuck with from my mother-in-law?” (I had thought maybe it was once fashionable and I just didn’t have the eye to appreciate it.) When I visit Eileen she will sometimes press a piece of costume jewelry in my hand and say “Will you remember me when you wear this?” It makes me a little sad, but I think a 95-year-old is just plain realistic, not morbid, when she says something like this.
The other family heirloom my husband claimed was a big comfortable fan back chair. Eileen had it for decades and once reupholstered it herself. Thus it gave me great pleasure to bring it home and recover the worn fabric with a funny oversized houndstooth fabric and lime green piping. I can’t wait to show it to Eileen. She will embrace the new look of the chair and appreciate the fact that I am giving it pride of place in my home.
When it comes to gifts, it’s hard for me to reciprocate with my mother-in-law because she really does not want anything more than our company. But I was pretty proud of myself for thinking of giving Eileen a beautiful set of hurricane lamps and two chunky faux candles that operate on a timer. She says, “I love when they light up and start flickering at 4:00 and give my apartment a warm glow. I always think of you.”
So when I wear those old earrings from Eileen, or sit in my updated Eileen chair, or think of her quiet candle-lit evenings (watching Boston sports teams, of course!), I am reminded that, sometimes, Stuff is not just Stuff. Ordinary possessions can uniquely connect us to the people and places we love, both gently and reliably. It’s hard to achieve that deep bond via every gift we give, but these few items I’ve recently exchanged with Eileen remind me that it is always worth the effort to try.