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Arlene Gesme

The
Mother-in-Law

Have I mentioned that I am part Irish? Well, I am. Some of you may think this is why I have red hair. That is not true. My red hair comes from a tree in Africa: the Lawsonia inermis, or henna tree. However, if you have ever seen me fly off the handle, that would be the Irish blood boiling in my veins. At least, that is the excuse I like to use.

Summer, 1998: my husband and I are visiting his parents. Alex is two and a half years-old, Zeta is two and a half months old. That’s when it hits. What did Michael say to make me so mad? Can I blame it on him? Or can I blame it on being sick? I had come down with Mastitis while traveling and felt like I was going to die. I don’t even know anymore what I was mad about. All I know is my voice increased in volume by about one thousand percent. Right in the middle of ripping Michael a new one, I looked to my right where my mother-in-law stood, witnessing the whole thing.

My mother-in-law. This is a woman whose house sparkles from being meticulously cleaned top to bottom every day; a woman who can wear white pants and they never get dirty; a woman who can serve delicious meals with beverages that complement the flavors, iron shirts and pants and dresses, and maintain perfect posture and composure through any social situation. My mother-in-law, Arlene, perhaps the most perfect human being to ever walk the face of the earth, had just witnessed me yelling at her son.

The birds stopped chirping outside. Silence spread throughout the house and the surrounding Illinois countryside like a thick blanket of shock and shame. She didn’t say a word. She just turned and walked away. How would I ever face her again?

A good night’s sleep and lots of antibiotics had my body feeling better in the morning, but not my conscience. Today we will all drive to Iowa together to visit Michael’s grandparents: my mother-in-law’s parents. Why did I end up in the passenger seat next to Arlene? Had someone planned this?

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Arlene and Alex on a lawn mower. 
Note the white pants while doing yard work.

The drive starts out somewhat tense. I want her to like me, but what is there to like? I am not a good wife. I can’t cook, iron, or sew. My clothes are always dirty and wrinkled. What kind of wife could I be for her son? We drove in silence for a little less than an hour when she pointed out the elephant in the room.

“About yesterday . . .”

“Oh, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have . . .” I started to explain.

Arlene interrupted, “It’s not like I have ever been mad at Gary—so mad that I broke the closet door off the hinges! You know, that door in the hallway that is still broken?” A smile lights up her face and she laughs while telling me about a similar argument and the fit she threw in anger. Then she starts to defend me: “Plus, you were sick and he just kept bothering you. He deserved it!” Now I was laughing, too. Partly because of her story, and partly out of relief.

That was the turning point. The ice was broken for good. My mother-in-law may still be perfect, but she has a spicy side, too. She can get mad. And, most importantly, I can trust her to love me even if I am not perfect.

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Gary and Arlene Gesme

What is perfection, anyway? Years later, while babysitting Alex and Zeta, Arlene played truth or dare with these two rascals. They dared her to stand on one leg and fart. Without a hint of hesitation, she stood up in her spotless home in her matching clothes, lifted one leg gracefully of the floor and tooted. That day, she became a legend! My children rolled on the floor in laughter! My mother-in-law: no wonder everyone wants to spend time with her. She has won me over, heart and soul.

“She is clothed with strength and dignity. She can laugh at the days to come.”

Proverbs 31:25

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