by Pink Hedgehog
My mother-in-law was a beautiful woman. She wasn’t a supermodel, didn’t wear fancy clothes or have a trendy haircut. She wasn’t slim, nor was she concerned with fashion. She was quirky, a little weird, and sometimes cranky. She was generous and kind, and had a very soft spot in her heart for animals. She loved birds a great deal, and her front yard is still filled with birdfeeders of all kinds. She was very organized and tidy, and she never forgot a birthday or anniversary. She was a knitter, and taught me how to knit, which sparked my interest and turned me in to a knitting fanatic. She made hundreds of blankets for needy children, and served the community in many ways. Whenever we would visit, she loved to bitch about the goings on in their little community. Her personality amused me and endeared her to me.
I say all of these things in the past tense because she died last February,–unexpectedly–with no warning, and left a huge hole in our lives. As I have struggled to cope with her loss, I have reflected a great deal about the kind of person she was and of life she lived.
For as long as I knew her, which was since I was a teenager, my mother-in-law was an atheist. She had no religion to shape her values or to help her determine how she should treat people. She raised two sons, who are tremendously moral people, and very successful in life. One of these sons is my husband. She taught them to respect women, to be kind, and to always try to do the right thing. Her sons are a tribute to her life and a testament to the goodness inside her soul.
I had been an observant Mormon for all of my life, and I was taught to be “Christ like,” and to treat others as Jesus would have, and yet many of the rules I lived by as an observant Mormon were anything but Christ like, even though I was both expected to simultaneously follow those rules and be Christ like. For all of my life, I had been hyper focused on following rules and being obedient, and not at all focused on thinking and reasoning in order to develop a sense of morality. When one concentrates too much on obedience to authority, one loses the ability to evaluate a situation in order to determine right from wrong. It happened to me. I became very good at following rules, and very bad at doing the right thing.
As my husband and I began our marriage, we did something that hurt her very deeply and yet this atheist never spoke a single word of her pain to us. We were good, obedient Mormon kids. I was raised in the church, while my husband was “a convert.” We were high school sweethearts. My husband joined the church when he was 18, served a mission, and we got married a mere six weeks after his return. When we got married, we did it the “right” way, following the rules, and married in “the Temple.” The problem is that in following these specific rules, we failed to make the right moral choice and include my mother-in-law in our wedding. This loving mother, who happened not to be Mormon was deemed “unworthy” to enter the sacred Mormon temple and was–therefore–summarily excluded from her oldest son’s wedding. All good Mormon couples get married in the temple no matter who gets excluded, shamed or shunned in the process.
We could have been married in a civil ceremony elsewhere and been sealed in the temple after one year’s time, but I had been taught all my life about the dangers of doing this, and that should one of us die before that year is up, we risk not being together forever. In addition, the stigma attached to those who wait a year can be strong, the assumption being that the couple had sinned sexually before the wedding and is often a badge of shame. So, we chose to do the “right” thing without even thinking for a second how wrong it was to exclude and disinvite my husband’s mother to the ceremony. This is one of the least Christ like rules I have ever heard of, and yet it’s a hard-and-fast rule of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A church that claims to have Christ at its head, and to have a prophet who speaks to God, and for God certainly has a lot of rules that don’t seem very kind, compassionate or Christ like to me.
My sweet atheist mother-in-law endured this pain silently. She always treated me well. She was not critical of me, and as far as I could tell, never held a grudge towards me for the horrible thing I had done to her. She and I shared a love of cooking and knitting. We exchanged recipes and gave each other cookbooks as gifts. She truly embraced me and loved me as her son’s wife and mother of her grandchildren. She lived a more Christ like life than I did, even though I was a Christian; a Mormon.
I find solace that she was able to see my husband and me leave the church 18 months before she died. I was able to apologize for the things I had done. I judged her harshly sometimes for superficial choices, such as drinking alcohol. The day we told her that we were both leaving the church, she cried and we cried. I was able to make things right. Since then, we shared a drink with her, laughed with her, and poked fun at the things I once thought were so important. I am grateful for her example to me of what a good mother-in-law should be. I’m thankful that she was part of my life for nearly 30 years. She showed me that what I thought was Christ like, was in fact unkind and cruel. She showed me this by behaving more like Christ than I ever had.
You will be missed, but your mark on this world will never end, my beautiful mom.