I have a confession to make. I love my mother-in-law. There, I've said it.
Mothers-in-law have a special status in our society, though sadly not an elevated one. We're all familiar with the stereotype of the meddling, domineering or just plain cranky old woman with chin hairs who functions mainly as a punchline. As comedian Henny Youngman once said, "Just got back from a pleasure trip: I took my mother-in-law to the airport."
My mother-in-law does not conform to this archetype in any way. Right from the beginning, we hit it off so well that, when annoyed, I used to threaten my husband that I would go home to his mother.
She does not rearrange our furniture, criticize our lifestyle choices or nag our children to write thank-you notes. Nor does she have chin hairs. She is happy when we are happy, and offers solace when we are not. She lives her own life to the fullest and always has.
When Dorothy Strype, my mother-in-law, recently celebrated her 90th birthday, there were as many well-wishers as there were candles on the cake. As soon as the invitations went out – not via Twitter, needless to say – the RSVPs flooded in faster than you can say "nonagenarian." The guests were exuberant, and after the cake was served, the guest of honour did a tap dance.
How can a woman who has been predeceased by most of her friends be happy? If you knew Dorothy, you'd understand. She's interested in everything and she talks to everyone. And by that I mean everyone. Whether you're her lifelong friend, a delivery person or standing next to her in a lineup, she'll engage you in conversation. And when she says, "How are you?" she actually means it. She makes new friends wherever she goes.
She finds joy in the things you would expect of many great-grandmothers – babies, flowers, a well-played hand of bridge, a Sunday roast beef dinner, a good novel. But this woman who is steadily shrinking before our eyes also exudes joy. She takes pleasure in the small details of life: matching placemats, napkins and flowers, even if no guests are present; perfectly brewed hot tea in a warm china cup; drawing pictures on the envelopes of letters sent to friends.
You don't live for 90 years on this earth without a few – okay, many – disappointments. Heartache is an equal-opportunity party crasher. And though I'm quite sure Dorothy has never studied yoga, she has approached the vicissitudes of life with serenity. Her mother died when she was only 16 and she lost a niece in young adulthood. Both events taught her to live in the present. She became a master at games of strategy – bridge, curling and negotiating Christmas with four children on a limited budget. When times were tough financially, she approached the situation pragmatically, taking in boarders and later entering the work force in her 50s.
She refers to her deceased friends as being "in heaven," as if they had just stepped into the next room.
She does not live in the past. She reads every day and can discuss all the books my friends and I are reading in our book club. She learned to use a computer in her 80s and loves e-mail, using it to keep in touch with her peripatetic 11 grandchildren.
Life for her is an adventure. She and her sister once waited in line for six hours to buy tickets for their offspring when the Beatles came to Toronto in 1964. They packed sandwiches and coffee for the long wait. No doubt friendships were forged in that lineup.
She has strong opinions and writes letters about them regularly. The premier, prime minister, municipal council, the Queen of England – all have been on the receiving end of these missives. Many of her letters to the editor have been printed in newspapers over the years.
Her sense of humour is marvellous. At her birthday party, she described the typical day of a 90-year-old: "First thing in the morning I have to put on my glasses. That enables me to find my hearing aids. Then I go into the bathroom to get my teeth. Thus prepared, I can move to the kitchen and take my pills."
She knows the value of "tea-and-talk" therapy, and is always ready to sit and listen to a family member who needs time to unburden. Raising children, she understood that the kitchen table was the best place to air grievances, settle arguments and discuss the future.
Invited to speak at the funerals of friends and family members, she often delivers a poem she wrote herself. Her eulogies are upbeat and capture the spirit of the person. The listeners always find something to smile about.
She makes the best fancy sandwiches in the world, and so, naturally, do we. Our children were weaned on thin-sliced cucumber and watercress, and preferred salmon and dill to PB&J.
When grandchildren visited she always had crafts and treats on hand – and would stay with them to complete the craft.
She personifies the loving mother and wife. When her four children married, the expectation was that the marriages would last. They all have.
She raised the man who is the love of my life, the father of our three children.
Cancer claimed her husband of 66 years, her childhood sweetheart, just three months ago, and she grieves for him by retelling amusing anecdotes.
We do so many things in life in the wrong order. We sprinkle salt on the driveway after the ice has formed. We eat dinner before dessert.
I don't want to wait to deliver her eulogy after she is gone. Besides, I'd never be able to write this as a poem. I want to tell her now.
Karen Strype lives in Markham, Ont.