Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lessons from My Mother-in-Law

LUCY BURDETTE:  My mother-in-law died two weeks ago—it was a sad and wrenching time, even though she was 102 and lived a wonderful life. All seven of her children were there to see her out, along with four in-laws.

Dorothy was a little suspicious of me when I arrived on the scene in 1991. John had experienced an unpleasant divorce, and she was very protective of her chicks. How could she be certain that I would treat him well?

In 1995, I was a nervous new golfer when I invited her to our club’s member-guest—my first foray into competition. (She had taken up the game at age 40, and was especially known for her putting expertise.) As we were eating breakfast before the tournament, our talk turned to dreams.

I said: “I dreamed last night that we got lost on the golf course.”

She said: “I dreamed they told me I was too old to enter.”

We laughed and laughed, and became fast friends after that. She wasn’t one to brag about her offspring, though she didn’t allow anyone to say anything bad about them either. She read most of my books, right up to the time when her macular degeneration prevented her from reading even large print. But she still carried the large print edition of MURDER WITH GANACHE tucked under her arm in the assisted living facility, so the other “inmates” could see that her daughter-in-law was a writer.

Of course, we've all been thinking about her legacy. Here are a few of the things I learned from her example:

The Brady Bunch, 1959
1. Family is king. Her centrifugal force in this family was powerful—she treasured and worried over each child (7), grandchild (17), great-grandchild (12), and in-law.

2. Keep moving! As I mentioned, she took up golf at 40 and played into her 90’s. Whenever we visited, she had planned a schedule of events that could have laid out a much younger person—bridge, visits to the library, golf, cooking, theater…And when she moved to assisted living in Maine, she went on every outing the activities director planned, and attended most of the in-house sessions, including a daily discussion of current events.

3. Hydrate. My sister-in-law Lisa said this one perfectly—she considered coffee and manhattans/martinis to be excellent ways to hydrate.

4. Embrace your age. She was uncomfortable at first with people pointing her out as a centenarian, but she finally gave that up and took whatever came. With the help of Lisa and other family, she threw a giant 100th birthday weekend that pulled the whole extended family together. (This was the chocolate cake I made for her at 102--she'd already devoured the coconut cake made by my sister-in-law Lisa.)

And one more irresistible photo from Julia Child's birthday celebration at Lisa's house. Note the pearls and the cookbooks...

What memorable life lessons do you carry with you from a special person?


  1. It sounds as if Dorothy was a special light in the lives of her family . . . so sorry for your loss. May you always cherish the memories.

    One hundred two years is pretty impressive . . . it must have been that coffee!
    My mom was much like your Dorothy; she was a woman of courage, even when it was more difficult than anyone could imagine, she kept on keeping on.
    Her life lesson: If you have family, courage, and faith, you have everything.

  2. So hard to lose such a lovely lady at any age. I'm thinking I better take some lessons from her life. Thank you for sharing.

  3. So very sorry for your loss. She seemed like such a special lady. I love her theory of hydration -- coffee and martinis....

  4. What a treasure she was -- she will continue to guide you! My friend Marguerite, who died a few years ago, was the one who engaged me in so many things -- Brownies, grad school, play groups for the children.

    She said, "Only touch a piece of paper once."

  5. What a lovely portrait of a terrific woman. 102! Oh my...
    My mother in law was a peach, she died at 92 and active and independent up to a week before. She always used to say, "I don't want to be a bother." I wish I could say that those are words but I live by but really, not so much.

  6. She sounds like a great mother in law! My grandmother is the woman figure I most look up to in my life. She has such a religious belief that no one can sway her. She has never "met a stranger" in her life. She amazes me even when she threatens to "bend me over her knee" even though I'm 40.
    1. Belief. She doesn't care what religion you are as long as you believe in something.
    2. Prayer. Whomever your higher power is, pray to them.
    3. Kindness. She always says, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar" and she is kind to everyone even if they aren't. She retired from the jewelry counter in Walmart this year at 80 years old. I remember a customer coming to her angry about not finding service and he said, "Do they only hire idiots around here?" to which my grandmother replied, "Well, we ave to work somewhere." The man couldn't help but laugh.
    4. Family is most important. She never believed in calling anyone a step-anything or half-anything. We were brothers and sisters no matter how it came about. And just because you weren't born into this family didn't mean you were less important than the rest of us.

  7. Oh, this is so wonderful! ANd such a reassuring to leave (and save) such good lessons.

    My mother's lessons are a bit different. She a was not so much a "family" person--and my family, as a result, is not very close. It's something that--touches me from time to time.

    SHe did have some good lessons. Not as, shall we say, cosmic as some. But useful.
    1. If you find a good thing, get two of them.
    2. It's never a waste of time to try to look nicer.
    3. Complaining is a waste of time. Just fix it.
    4. Get the best quality one you can.
    5. When you clean up the kitchen, wipe off ALL horizontal surfaces.
    6. If you put it away, you will be able to find it again.
    7. Before you marry anyone, see them drunk, sick, and with their mother.

    My mother in law? Oh. That's a story for another time. Suffice it to say that when we met, she said "My, you're a big one, aren't you?"

    Roberta, we are all hydrating today with a toast to Dorothy! ANd love to you all.

  8. That was fun to read! I think you can share more stories about her, we would all love to read them!

  9. What a lovely tribute, Lucy. You are blessed to have had a mother in law like that. So many friends have mothers in law who made their lives miserable and caused division in the family. Mine was a superb cook, which made her a little intimidating but she was considerate too and had a raunchy sense of humor fir such an upper class English lady.
    I'll definitely stay hydrated today!

  10. So sorry for your loss, and what a great lady! I'd say her lessons of life are something we all should take to heart.

    My great-grandfather was a farmer. He lived into his 100s, but no one is sure how far into them given that his was a home birth. At any rate, he farmed until the last day of his life, and I knew him well having spent many summers and vacations on the farm. He had a car, a much cherished Model A that served him all his life, and although he did have a tractor, he preferred to use horse power to care for his fields. He bought blind horses at the Albany auction. Although this probably had more to do with economy than desire, when I asked him about it, he told me that animals see with their hearts and blind horses see what's important without distraction. My great-grandfather was French. Years later, reading The Little Prince, I encountered much the same sentiment and have taken it as a motto: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  11. What a treat to read about her, Roberta. My ex-husband's mother was the type to smile and stab you in the back. Gah. I guess her son learned some lessons from her...

    But Hugh's mother, while plain-spoken, was also a treat and lived fully until ag (as did his dad), and also adored my sons. Once I was waiting with her, a former English teacher, in a hospital while they got ready to put a stent in her. We found a misplaced apostrophe on a poster, and she laughed and fully approved of me getting my red pen out to correct it. Rest in peace, Bette.

  12. Sorry, something got cut off (and I should clarify that Hugh is my man these days, NOT my ex...).

    Bette lived until age 89.

  13. Roberta, your mother-in-law was truly special. Thanks for letting us know her through your stories.

    I was reminded of our late next door neighbor, Mrs. Montgomery, who lived to 102 as well. (She repeatedly asked us to call her by her first name, but we found we just couldn't. It seemed disrespectful somehow.) Mrs. M was widowed for at least forty years but I never heard her complain about living alone. She was very independent and didn't like to ask for help, but she called us when she really needed it, including once in the middle of the night when her bathroom plumbing sprung a leak and started flooding the house. In turn, she was our watchkeeper. She sat every day at her kitchen window, which looked directly across the street to the front of our house. She called us whenever she saw a strange car, when we left our garage door open, and, when our daughter was a teenager, if there was any hanky panky going on in parked cars. (You can guess how much that was appreciated:-))She admired our Christmas lights and our flowers, and we took great pleasure in keeping up a display for her.

    Mrs. M read voraciously until the last year or so of her life--and, yes, she nagged me about my writing progress... She had a loving and attentive family--children and grandchildren--but it wasn't until the last year or so that she finally agreed to let one of her daughters move in to help out. Even then she missed her independence.

    She's been gone a few years now and we still miss her. I'd like to be as feisty, as sharp, and as good a friend and neighbor.

  14. How wonderful, Lucy, that you and your mother-in-law had a close relationship and enjoyed each other's company. What you learned from her example sounds like great advice for all of us.

    I'm sure I've mentioned my mother and her encouragement of my reading before, but it bears repeating, as it is so central to my life. To have been given the gift from my mother of valuing reading and reading time was essential to the child I was and the adult I grew up to be. I've come into contact with children whose parents didn't gift them with this acknowledgement of valuing time spent reading, and I think of what that child and family are missing. To have the freedom of sitting curled up in a chair and reading and knowing that no one was going to come and tell me to get busy, like I wasn't already busy with something worthwhile, was priceless. Of course, I didn't know it was a gift then; it was just life for me. My mother started a legacy of reading that I wish she had lived to see (she's been gone twenty years), as my son and daughter are both readers, and my granddaughters love to read, too. In fact, the other day, my six-year-old granddaughter told me that what she loved best was school and reading. With my mother also a great proponent of education, having been a teacher herself, I can't imagine anything that would have made her happier than knowing her great-granddaughter felt this way.

  15. What a gift to have known her. She sounds like a true gem.

  16. Oh Denise, that's so smart about touching a paper once! I wish I did would save a lot of piles around the house!

  17. Me neither Hallie:). But I think some people who insist they don't want to be a bother ARE a bother because you have to guess what they want. Your mother in law sounds wonderful though. Don't we all wish we could go out active to the end?

  18. Hank, love your mother's list, especially #7! And to call you big is hardly accurate--you knew right then she'd be a pip!

    Thanks Rhys--your m-in-law sounds like she had just the right combination of qualities!

    And Edith--what a treasure to welcome your sons into the family too!

  19. Oh my gosh Debs, Mrs. M sounds like an amazing woman and neighbor. And exactly the kind of person that would be a great asset in a mystery!

    Kathy, that's a fabulous story and legacy!

    And thanks Libby and all. Now let's go hydrate!

  20. Rachel, sorry I skipped you. I LOVE your grandmother's lessons. And the story about how she answered the irate customer--perfect!

  21. "...some people who insist they don't want to be a bother ARE a bother because you have to guess what they want."
    AND THAT is a topic for another time.

  22. She sounds amazing and you were so blessed to have her in your life. I think my mother has taught me the most, but her mother-my oma did too and her grandmother's lessons came down thru them both. I cant even begin to list the things they taught me, but the one I try to live by is - everyone is dealing with something, treat them kindly, dont judge by the outside, but what is in their hearts.

  23. Oh, she sounds and looks like such fun, and has left such a great legacy of stories! Hugs <3