Ode to My Mother-in-Law

Brimming over with love–and leftovers

This Christmas story begins with Labor Day, and a still-sweltering Georgia afternoon. I’m mopping up a puddle of baked beans with the last few bites of my hamburger. At the other end of the table is my mother-in-law, Barb, staring over her eyeglasses, her pen poised above a hardback spiral notebook. “What do we want to eat for Christmas?” she asks. Sitting beside her, my father-in-law tut-tuts that maybe this can wait. But she persists, “I’d rather figure it out now, while everyone’s here.”

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Planning is her lifeblood. Phooey on floating through life with the sail down—it is full steam ahead to the next event. And for Barb, it’s not just family occasions. Her powers are used for the good at weddings, baby showers, memorial services, trips with friends, and events at church. She’ll paint sets for our local theatre, and come out of retirement the fourth year in a row to do snacks at VBS.

When Christmas morning finally arrives, our electric griddle sizzles with the sound of happy sausages. Two pairs of feet pound up the tall wooden staircase to the front door, and our kids run to open it. My in-laws arrive for fruit salad and reindeer-shaped pancakes, but instead of filling her plate, Barb sidles up to the sink to wash what was dirtied in the making of this breakfast.

In the afternoon we reconvene at my in-laws’, and the dining room table runneth over with serving plates of ham, sweet potatoes, baked potato casserole, corn, broccoli casserole, applesauce, pistachio pudding, a tossed salad, dinner rolls, and a vegetable tray with homemade dip. I have to calculate the circumference of my plate and subtract three items to keep my food from dripping on to the tablecloth. Barb has yet to sit down; she’s busing the casseroles off the table to make room for assorted dishes of pineapple rings, pickles, black olives, mayonnaise, and mustard. When I lift the first bite of ham to my lips, she asks, “John, are you ready for seconds?”

Twenty years on, she still hasn’t changed. At the beginning it felt like so much fuss, the countless weeks invested in these events, informal as they often were. But with Barb, no one is forgotten. She’s never late with happy birthday, congratulations, or her deepest sympathy. Consideration for our care and comfort is her premium quality. So even as I cajole her to take a seat and enjoy this Christmas, I know she’s reveling in us and celebrating in her own way. Brimming over with love—and leftovers.

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