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MEDITATIONS OF A MOTHER-IN-LAW
BY A MATERNAL PHILOSOPHER
THERE was once a rumor that the Under the sway of that fear, when florists of this country, well pleased my oldest daughter was married, I took with their success in establishing the the bridegroom aside for a moment carnation as the emblem for Mother's after the ceremony and said to him Day, were planning to appoint a day earnestly, 'I shall try to be a good for mothers-in-law. The florists, it was mother-in-law to you, Alexander.' I said, were open to suggestions as to an said it in the full seriousness of a vow, appropriate flower.
affixing my promise as a sort of rider to A group of ladies, most of us mothers- my daughter's marriage contract. That in-law ourselves, were discussing this same vow I have mentally renewed as false alarm at an afternoon tea. each of my children married and went
'Well,' asked someone, 'what would away. I have been ambitious that my be an appropriate flower?'
sons-in-law and my daughters-in-law ‘Oh!' exclaimed the only young . should think of me as one who never newly married lady among us, with a tries to manage or to meddle; one whose sudden burst of inspiration – 'the advice is to be had only when applied snapdragon.'
for; one who, in an emergency, is always Then, remembering who and what ready and able to step promptly into we were, she withdrew the nomination the breach. The perfect mother-in-law, hastily, assuring us that such a flower I have come to believe, is a combinawould never apply to us nor to her own tion of hostess, news correspondent, mother-in-law. Jack's mother was a consulting-bureau, valued friend, and darling and had just given her a fur first-aid kit. coat. She had had in mind only the To be considered expert in those abstract traditional mother-in-law, lines has been my aim. But in my whom we did not resemble in any way. efforts to work up this reputation, I
This was comforting to hear. But I have discovered in my own spirit certhink that nearly every mother of tain tendencies that are, I think, the married children is haunted now and eternal roots of the old tradition about then by the traditional mother-in-law the meddlesome mother-in-law. The spectre. Does she, unknown to herself, profound philosopher who could probe resemble that goblin? Everyone knows those roots would come upon an underthat the mother-in-law has been much ground meshwork more intricate and maligned, but a caricature so popular astonishing than the roots of any banand persistent must touch the truth yan grove. For the roots of our farsomewhere.
famed ‘meddlesomeness' are the very One would prefer not to be playing roots from which grew our most essenthat hackneyed character-part. tial crop of motherly virtues when our children were small — the virtues of Therefore, one snowy December afterfaithfulness to endless trivial detail, noon when I was alone in the house, attention to a host of exacting small Priscilla came to call. Together she duties, persistence in our ideals, fore- and I sat down before the fire, with our sight in warding off danger and in feet on the same footstool, and for two making dreams come true.
hours, while a white New England The central root of all these virtues blizzard whirled through the rosewas our peculiarly apprehensive mater- bushes outside the window, I recounted nal sense of responsibility. Skillful Tyler's faults. I covered the ground mothers are so anxious that everything quite thoroughly, because I wanted shall be right! Even after our children Priscilla to have the reassurance, in are safely married, we are still respon- case he ever displayed his ferocious sible. It is not that we distrust our moods to her, of knowing that he had children-in-law. Our watchfulness is often done even so to us. I suppose I not a new trait inspired by them. It is also wanted her to know that his faults a hang-over from long experience, and were not habits that I endorsed. it takes them in only because we now But as I look back upon it now, I look at them and at our own children think that I might have saved my in the same glance. We know our own breath. For Tyler as a householder is children a little too well to be perfectly transformed, and I sometimes fear that easy in our minds. A mother rarely Priscilla thinks I never quite apprefeels that she has had quite time to put ciated my own son. She has never seen the finishing touches on her products; him in the rôle of bold bad man, so yet whatever modification she tries to ably advertised by me. When I first make now in her own children must saw his angelic manners under her involve the interests of their partners. régime I held my breath, because in Therefore, if she wants to avoid the the old days Tyler in a beatific state appearance of trying to superintend the of mind meant Tyler getting ready to new couple, she does well to get in her break out in a new place. But as time chief master-strokes before the wed- goes on and the serenity remains unding day.
broken, I repeat to myself that perfect With this in mind, when my son line from the Just So Stories — ‘Not Tyler became engaged to be married, always was the Kangaroo as now we I had a long talk with him about his do behold him' - a text that I faults. I told him that his lovely little recommend to all mothers who have fiancée was very different from me and seen their brisk sons neatly trained by from his sisters. “Tyler,' said I, ‘if you well-selected wives. ever roared at her in an argument the Indeed, the longer I live the more way you do at us, her heart would be ready I am to believe that a young absolutely broken. She'd never get man's wife may be better acquainted over it.'
with his actual current present-day ‘Mother,' suggested Tyler suddenly, self than his mother can possibly be. 'I wish you 'd ask Priscilla down here My daughter-in-law sees in her hussome time when I am away, and tell band a forceful man of affairs on whose her all about me. I'd like to have her judgment she implicitly relies. I rewarned beforehand. Tell her all my spect his judgment too, in a way, but faults.'
I cannot help knowing that he is the I laughed, but Tyler persisted, and same Tyler who, at the age of four, soon arranged a definite appointment. howled himself into a high fever one day because I would not let him lead a their summer cottage to see the bloodhound in the parade when Uncle neighbors running anxiously along the Tom's Cabin came to town. Mothers beach, all looking at something in the view their sons with what psycholo- ocean. And there, far out in the forgists might call an 'associative fringe.' bidden channel beyond the big dock, We are handicapped by assorted swam the blissful head of young Roger, memories. We cannot estimate our supported with water wings. Churning sons exactly as their wives estimate along on his outbound voyage, he them. They came upon us at a dif- looked like a seagoing cherub's head ferent stage.
with wings. The life-saving crew down II
the beach was rushing out a boat to
catch him before he struck the swifter Similarly, I cannot avoid taking a current just beyond. bird's-eye view of my children-in-law. Some outbreak in this general manTo me, each of them was in the first ner an experienced mother fears if she place only one in a series of possible relaxes her vigilance. Things have choices for the boys or suitors for the happened so many times. We look girls. I scanned them critically as they enviously at our husbands and try to came along, just as I had scanned emulate their large oblivion to detail. others before them in the same light. But detail has been our province these I had no way of knowing that they were thirty-odd years of family life. Time to be the one and only inevitable choice. was when attention to detail was an Then when they were suddenly jumped effort to us. I recall one lovely April to the position of members of the fam- afternoon many years ago when it ily, I saw them in a new light, reflected seems to me that one more childish from the love of my own children. question to answer would drive me The affection that I gave them then wild. One more torn muddy little was cordial and real, not affection stocking to change, one more stiffened ex officio at all. But the relation, like little shoestring to tie, and the taut all true ones, remains complex. I re- thread of my sanity would snap. At member so clearly all the early stages this point, Louisa (aged seven) tried of the game, and exactly how they to give Anthony (aged two) a drink of impressed the family while the children water from the garden hose turned on were falling in love.
full force. I rushed to the rescue and With this historical background of changed Anthony's things; whereupon, special knowledge, how shall we man- six minutes later, Louisa soaked him age to dismiss an abiding sense of with the hose again in the same way. responsibility when our boys and girls “It was n't my fault, Mother,' exare starting families of their own? We plained Louisa virtuously, as I flew cannot resign from being their parents about assembling a second oufit of dry or get an honorable discharge. My clothes. "Tony did n't drink quite fast daughter Louisa tried to resign from enough.' her position of authority over her five- The training in infinite detail and year-old son one day in last summer's eternal repetition that our children vacation. In sudden exasperation she gave us when we were young and they announced, 'Roger Macdonald, I wash were small is not easily unlearned.
please.' Fifteen minutes later, Louisa glanced out through the window of
proficient. Our attention to detail became automatic. It is automatic still.
a forest without noticing
When an expert mother tries to with 'Get a box, and I am supposed to subdraw her attention from the minor side at once. The trouble is, when I details of her grown children's lives, have an inspiration that I think will be she feels as a trained woodsman or useful to them, I never can tell beforescout might feel if he tried to go through hand whether I am going to be thanked an unexplored forest without noticing and blessed for saving the situation, or anything, deliberately oblivious to whether I am going to be told to get a significant detail. No longer an official box. After all this training from my guide, if in spite of himself he sees all own daughters, is it to be wondered at the signs of a great hurricane coming that I go softly with my in-laws? up, shall he not warn the gay young This sounds as if my children were explorers in their canoe on the river disrespectful. I suppose sometimes · that he snuffs a storm?
they were. Anthony coined a useful This is the vital problem for con- word to describe his sensation when he
whether I am goinis training from my
to avoid the role of carping mother-in- the word was ‘impertuous.' The law. Shall we withhold our warnings “impertuousness' of the modern young and advice for fear of seeming officious? person is explained partly by the up-toWe hate to nag. Yet what if a word date briskness of modern parents and from us might save the day? “When I partly by modern costume. Give me a give advice,' said one emphatic mother frail lace cap, and a mull kerchief, and a of grown sons, 'I don't mean that the soft long gown, and mitts, together with boys and their wives have to follow it. an appearance of decrepitude, and noI only want them to have had that op- body would ever tell me to get a box, no portunity.'
matter what I chose to say. Our generEven before my children were mar- ation is too energetic to inspire the oldried, I was never certain when I ought time reverent formalities so properly to favor them with my advice and when adopted by the young to the aged a I ought to let them learn by experience. hundred years ago. We of the middle Years ago, the girls came home one generation have the experience of our afternoon full of enthusiasm over a wel years without the panoply of age. This fare scheme for the Children's Hospital. fact was impressed upon me recently, A campaign was in progress, and when one of my busiest friends took her Louisa was chairman of the Junior tiny grandchild to the Church KinderLeague. They were discussing plans garten one day, and stayed to visit that I knew would involve floods of while the young instructor taught the circulars and address-cards and record- lesson on 'Helpfulness. In the lesson slips, which would soon spread into leaflet was a picture of an exceedingly every corner of the house. Therefore, old lady sitting by the window, while in a lull in the conversation, I said, a little girl threaded a needle for her. ‘Now Louisa, first you ought to get a The poem beneath began:box.' My suggestion did not seem to
Grandmother's eyes are old and dim. make a very palpable hit, and I, there
Grandmother's steps are slow. fore, at twenty-minute intervals, repeated my practical bit of advice. The The young Kindergartner, looking girls never forgot it. The remark be- up and catching the appreciative glance came a byword, and even to-day if I of the visiting grandmother upon her, venture a suggestion that they consider remarked hastily, 'This, boys and girls, too obvious, they have only to murmur is the picture of a great grandmother.' Still, in spite of the fact that we have cedure has only been complicated a discarded the picturesque uniform of little by the fact that another personold age, it is true (critics of our wild ality, allied but not related, is now inyoung people notwithstanding) that volved. Our advice, when we give it, frequently the mothers of our genera- seems to the children-in-law all the tion are actually requested for advice. more official because it comes to them The more we keep our ideas to our- at one remove. selves, the oftener we find our opinions Even our supposed ideas are somesolicited. Intellectual mystery is a times quoted to our sons-in-law with famous lure. So is our reputation for effect. Alexander and Louisa were havversatility in thinking up expedients. ing a discussion at their breakfast
table one morning. They were talking III
freely, for their children were too little
to understand. The debate was at its I do not know how it is with others, height, when Louisa remarked with but with me, when my advice has been finality, ‘Anyway, I don't believe that formally requested and I have given my my mother would think much of the opinion as wisely as I can, there comes idea.' Alexander, halted in the full a temptation to carry on a follow-up swing of his argument, paused respectcampaign. My interest is all agog. I fully to consider this trump card; shall feel partly to blame if the plans whereupon little Roger, eating cereal, fail. I have been accustomed for such a glanced across at his baby sister in her long time to pushing on the reins for high-chair and observed instructively, certain of my children and acting as a “Now Ma 's beated Pa. balance wheel for others, that I am We mothers-in-law, in spite of the prompted to take the lead.
funny-papers, do hold a subtle power. Yet I am convinced that this is the Our problem is where to draw the line. point where we may easily run afoul of I have not found a ready-made solution our children-in-law. We soon learn for that problem, but there is one parathat all prodding and badgering and graph in literature that I pin beside my advice urgently given to our own chil- mirror and look at now and then. It is dren is promptly handed on to their the passage from The Cloister and the married partners: if Romeo had lived Hearth describing Catherine's visit to to marry Juliet, he would soon have her daughter-in-law. I know the lines been quoting to her the infallible opin- by heart, but it bolsters up my good ions of Mother Montague. It is human resolutions to see them in black and nature for the most independent sons white:and daughters to quote as authority ‘A Catherine is not an unmixed good certain parental sayings that the par- in a strange house. The governing ents themselves thought went in at one power is strong in her. It knows no ear and came out at the other.
discrimination. It sets everything to This leads us very close to the chief rights, and everybody. Now, many foundation of the old mother-in-law things are the better for being set to slander. Very few mothers-in-law go rights, but everything is not. Everydirectly to their sons-in-law and offer thing is the one thing that won't stand to manage their affairs. The dealings being set to rights. . . . Catherine are largely indirect. The mother-in-law altered the position of every chair problem is essentially the problem of and table in Margaret's house, and the mother of grown children: the pro- perhaps for the better. But she
The dealings baftered the position ret's house, and