We regarded each other from opposite sides of the table: I through blue-tinted contacts, and she through the upper portion of her bifocals. “I’m taking my two favorite women to dinner,” her son had informed us on that first Valentines Day. It wasn’t exactly the dream date I had anticipated, but there we were, nevertheless.
Although she had left her fifth grade classroom hours before, a commanding presence accompanied his mother to dinner. She was, and would always be a teacher. That was my first lesson.
Soon after our triangular date, Lillian approached her son. “Isn’t it about time you asked that girl to marry you?” And so he did; partly, I’m sure, because it would have been harder to tell her no.
Despite her clarity on most matters, our early relationship resembled the shuffle. Both a little uncertain of our place and position, we mainly tried to avoid stepping on each others’ toes. Like the opposite sides of the table we initially occupied, we often took opposite sides of an issue. She liked large, bold prints, while I enjoyed floral pastels. She preferred the curtains drawn. I preferred no curtains at all. My idea of a perfect Saturday was sleeping until eight o’clock and drinking coffee until ten; hers was rising at dawn’s first light and immediately tackling a huge task.
As time went on, we settled into an easy two-step; each taking our turn to advance and retreat. I came to appreciate Lillian’s sense of humor, if not her fashion sense; her industry, if not her incessant instruction. She tolerated my laid-back approach to parenting and daily living, which was so unlike her own. I began seeking little ways to please her, such as placing fresh flowers on her nightstand when she came to visit. She often pleased me by making my favorite dish, her potato salad, when we visited her home. At our house she allowed us to sleep. At her house, we all arose early to the aroma of waffles and syrup.
Our two-step evolved into the swing as we warmed up to one another and began discovering things in common. Like her, I became a classroom teacher. We both enjoyed writing poetry, playing piano, and growing flowers. She delighted in her grandchildren and, of course, I was pretty fond of them myself. We also shared a strong faith in Jesus Christ, and she taught me much about expressing and respecting our differences in regards to faith. Once, I discovered her pink Romantic England dishes, and threw a spontaneous tea party in her honor. She saved coleus slips in the fall and presented them to me at planting time the following spring.
I don’t wish to be misleading. Lillian and I faltered and even stumbled at times during our thirty-two year dance. She was quite generous with her opinions. I stubbornly clung to my own. Although I looked forward to her visits, I was usually relieved when she left. When circumstances brought her to our home to stay, we sadly discovered, but all agreed, that a joint living arrangement wasn’t going to work well for any of us. She moved into a residential care center, leaving behind her Romantic England dishes because she knew I would use and treasure them.
A year ago I sat by Lillian’s hospital bed holding her feeble, ninety-one year old hand. “I worry sometimes that I haven’t done enough,” she whispered. “I’ve tried to love God and do good things, but I just don’t know if it’s enough.”
“You could never do enough,” I replied. “That’s why Jesus did it all, so you wouldn’t have to. All He wants is your love, and your love for Him has always been evident to me.”
She relaxed then and gave my hand a weak squeeze. “You’ve been the best daughter-in-law I could have hoped for.” I kissed her on the cheek, sensing correctly that our final waltz was over.
Not long afterward, my husband and I spent a week with our son and his girlfriend. She and I had some lovely conversation as we sat side by side on the beach. As our week came to a close I pulled my son aside and asked, “When are you going to marry that girl?”
And so, one month later, he did.
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