This essay was written in memory of my mother-in-love, Ann Neiswender, as an entry for an audition for the 2016 Baton Rouge Listen To Your Mother show. As it turns out, I ended up in the cast of the New Orleans show instead. To watch me read to a live audience, click here and the essay is below. I was very privileged to have a mother-in-law who treated me as a daughter. It was a humbling experience to be part of the #LTYMNO show, as well.
What comes to your mind when you think of your husband’s mother? As my school nurse in elementary school, my future mother-in-law gave me no impression things would go well for our relationship. “Nice Nurse” was skeptical of any student’s claim to have an illness, and I was a frequent customer because of my desperate need to be nurtured. Being pretty hard-nosed was part of her strategy of separating those who were truly sick from those who were aspiring hypochondriacs. Let’s just say we didn’t get off to a good start.
A few years later, I met her son after marching band practice. He was a tall, dark, and handsome senior drummer who was interested in this petite freshman trombone player. The night of our first date was my first interaction with Marty’s Mom since fifth grade. On that October evening, my family was out of town, and I forgot my key inside the house. I went to my great-grandmother’s house down the street to get ready. Realizing that Marty wouldn’t know where to pick me up, I gave him a call. I was mortified when my old school nurse answered the phone! Girls didn’t call guys back then.
Eventually, she invited me for dinner and to help decorate their Christmas tree. It was their family tradition to cut down a fresh tree and hang ornaments while listening to Christmas carols. This was foreign to me, since my mother always decorated our silver and blue tree. Marty’s Mom cherished family time and passed on the legacy to her son and his younger sister. I began to see past the school nurse façade and have an insight into her love of family. She jokingly asked Marty about me that night, “Why’d you have to pick the runt of the litter?”
Far from being on the cover of Southern Living, Marty’s Mom’s home was actually a cozy two-bedroom, one-bath rent house, where the table was in the kitchen so the dining room could be used as her bedroom. She just loved having her kids at home, even if it meant allowing us to glue Astroturf to the floor of Marty’s flat-bottom boat in her modest living room. I was always welcomed in her home, and it became a refuge for me, since my home life was so unpredictable.
I hadn’t been on many family vacations, so I was beside myself when Marty’s Mom asked me to join them on a trip to Colorado the next summer. Her gracious offer was based on advice from his father, since Marty didn’t want to be away from me for a week. It was wonderful to learn some of his mother’s traveling traditions, like eating roadside picnic lunches, feasting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with cherry Kool-Aid, and having a breakfast of Chips Ahoy cookies dipped in milk. Though she was a single mom without a lot of money, she sure made this trip feel like a dream family vacation to me.
Marty and I were engaged in January of my senior year in high school. His mother was part of the planning from the beginning, helping me choose a china pattern and start my recipe collection. I remember Marty’s Mom giving me a book called Letters to Karen, which was written for a future daughter-in-love. That’s what she called me. She helped us find our first rent house and got us started financially until we could get our own credit cards. I remember her keeping a running tab of what we had charged and what we had paid on the side of the refrigerator. She was generous, but taught us responsibility.
Once grandchildren arrived, lots of love and plenty of time gave her the means to be a Nana extraordinaire. Being a firm believer that our marriage should always come first, she made the trip to our home, from one to eventually three hours away, so we had date nights and time alone. Every summer, she would keep our kids for a week for swimming lessons and a week for her church’s Bible school. They loved being treated like royalty, with a Nana who fixed their favorite meals; even counting the Brussel sprouts to be sure they were equal. Nana was her name and spoiling all of us was her game.
Nana shopped all year for the perfect Christmas and birthday presents. She delighted in secretly gathering lots of little items for our Christmas stockings and Easter baskets, as well. She enjoyed surprising us with “love gifts” of whatever she thought we might love or find useful, delivered in person or through the mail. When visiting, she brought supper for that night and two frozen meals for the future. Promptly, she would change a diaper, empty a dishwasher, or fold a load of multiplying laundry.
Of all the things Nana did for me through the 40+ years I knew her, the best one occurred when I was 29 and a stay-at-home mother of two toddlers. My life had become unmanageable because of my reactions to hurtful childhood memories that had resurfaced. One day while visiting us, she gave me a book by Lloyd Ogilvie, Enjoying God. Ogilvie had spoken at their church, and she felt his message would help me in my despair. By chapter three, I had my answer…”You are loved, now.” God used Nana to let me know, and I’m eternally grateful.
My mother-in-love passed away into the gracious, loving arms of her Savior in December 2014. We miss her every day. She put raising her children ahead of pursuing her own happiness and sometimes felt so lonely because of her choices. Sometimes she was even bitter and resentful about her life. She wasn’t perfect and could be very critical at times. Despite these flaws, she did one thing with reckless abandon. She loved. She loved her God, her children, her grandchildren, her church, and her friends. She loved sacrificially. She showed us through her life that love never fails.