At 5”3 ½, she is tiny with thick, long black hair sprinkled with some gray. She wears glasses, her voice squeaks like a mouse, and a laugh that bubbles like The White River on a quiet day. Don’t let her small, innocent demeanor fool you. She has strong convictions, and she will never budge from them, but only for the sake of loving people. This is my mother in law, but I call her Mom. She also possesses a natural sass that is deliberate and endearing. I do the laundry, dishes, cooking, and general cleaning—most of the time. I have been on my own for quite a few years before I met Ronnie, and I like cleaning by myself. I also get a little testy when she comes into the kitchen while I’m cooking. Yesterday, as we were gathering laundry, Mom asked Ronnie why she didn’t do laundry, “Don’t you live here?” I couldn’t help but laugh.
Mom is a Christian whose sole ethic is based on loving God and loving other people, and that love overrides any doctrinal opinions. I have only recently called her mom in the two years Ronnie and I have been married, but that had to do with my own wrecked relationship with my mother. The relationship didn’t end because of anything I did, I think, but since my return to Indianapolis, my mother has told me that I was a mistake, and I am the reason that she had a miserable life married to an unstable man. I finally realized why our relationship had always been volatile, and I am finally at a place in my life where I need to make some vital changes. That side of the family is mean, bitter, hostile, and narrow minded. My brother and I are nothing like them, but I can see if I continue holding on to my old wounds instead of healing, I will become them. I don’t want that life. I want to have joy, peace, and love instead of treating people as excuses to be nasty. That’s why I love my mother in law, it’s why I like her, and it’s why I call her mom. She’s all about love even in the face of opposition, and I want those people in my life.
To some degree my mother in law had to work on being loving because she had bit of a temper when Ronnie and her sister were young girls. Parenthood can make anyone crazy—even the nice ones. My father in law saw his wife raise her hand at Ronnie and her sister, and said he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his kids alone with her. That was a wake-up call to her, and she started making changes. At her heart she is kind and patient, and her love for her children is second only to God. She’s not abusive in any way shape or form, and nowhere close to the level of anger and physical punishment I received from my father and the rest of my family. I’m not a parent, and the closest I have to an opinion on being a parent is watching my friends with their kids. I knew them and traveled around the country with them before the serious consideration of kids, and I saw how they adapted to life with kids. The evolution is an interesting one as they went from diaper changing, to first days at school, to prom, college, and now talks of marriage. I’ve a good friend who will be a grandfather this September. I do the typical old guy thing and remark how I remember when these “kids” came up to my knee, or how I could fit their entire body into my hand.
I don’t regret not having kids, and one of the reasons I don’t want them came from what I experienced from my father and mother, and what I learned the year before my father died. I knew my father was abused maliciously by his father, and in one of those incidents, my father’s lower back was broken by his father’s steel toed boot. Why? What did he do? My father was fourteen and he worked on a farm with his father. At four in the morning my father had a hard time getting out of bed because he would get home from school, resume farm work, and go until as late as nine in the evening. Adults have a difficult enough time doing that let alone fourteen year old boys. His father lost his temper, and started kicking until the snap of bones echoed throughout the room. Did his father care? Absolutely not. Nobody in church or the community did anything either. People have remarked that in that time and place nobody intruded on another’s family. I understand that, but even practical sentiments have limits. Nobody can abide a battered child. The community and the church were scared of my dad’s father. He was a bull of a man born in 1911, stood at 6”4, thick arms, barrel chest, square jaw, and tossed 150 lb. bales of hay with one arm like you and I toss a wad of paper. He also had a vicious temper he knowingly hid at church to play the part of good man and good Christian. Everyone saw through it of course, but no one could take him, and no one wanted to end up in the hospital. My father suffered that alone. When his father died, he realized he was free to be his own man.
We didn’t go to church until I was nine. My mother was and still is cynical and dismissive of organized religion, and my father wanted nothing to do with God because of the life he had been dealt. For the most part my father was a peaceable man towards us kids, and he had a laugh that would crack like a whip especially when we spent time with my godparents. They would tell stories in their gravelly tones, blow out punchlines with their smoke, and wash them down with beer. Those were fun times, and the only time I saw my father come close to physical violence was defending me and my aunt. My aunt’s second husband physically battered her, and when my mom saw the marks she didn’t ask questions, “You’re moving in with us.” Nevermind that my mother and aunt were daughters of a cop, nevermind that my mother knew how to use a knife, and nevermind that all my family towered over this man with wide chests and broad shoulders. Apparently, he never paid attention to our family dynamic. His name was Joe, but I called him Tosser, and he earned that name. When I was eight he tried to muscle his way through the front door while I was in the living room playing with my trucks and watching cartoons. My father, with one hand around Tosser’s neck, picked him up, and threw him into the bushes. No roars and no bellowing, but a calm tone, “She doesn’t want to talk to you. Now get off my property.” We never saw him again, and when he saw my dad twenty years later, Tosser was still scared.
Things changed after we started going to church. The change wasn’t gradual but an instantaneous snap, and my father crushed us with his iron fist. My father put upon us bruises and broken bones in the name of God and St. Paul, or so I thought at the time. As I got older, and wandered around the states meeting different people, I understood my father as a flawed human being—a good person, but a flawed person nonetheless. I knew of my father’s physical abuse, and how church triggered my father’s anger because he was beaten down in God’s name. My experience was only a shadow of what my father endured. Where he walked through life with a permanently damaged back, I walk through life with a permanently bent ring finger on my right hand when I blocked a blow to my head. As my father sat on Death’s doorstep, he became confessional. He told my mom that he had been sexually abused by his uncle, his father knew about the abuse, and didn’t care. My mom was dumbfounded, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was less of a man.” My brother and I were in our thirties, and in the other room. Our mother looks at us, “Delman, I’ve got a pretty good idea you’re a man.” After hearing this, all those years, I finally realized my father was a walking time bomb from his PTSD. To his credit, though, the only substances my father abused were coffee (six pots a day), and cigarettes (five packs of Kool Filter Kings until I was thirteen when he became an elder). Considering the life my father had, he was better than he should have been. What brought out the anger of my father was having kids and church. Outside of my father, I observed similar things with my friends who had kids. They aren’t mean or abusive, but their kids bring their psychological baggage to the surface, and press that baggage against their eyeballs.
Mom didn’t grow up like I did, or like my dad. She was a PK (preacher’s kid), but she was a good one—the first good one I ever met, and I’m an elder’s kid who ran in those leadership circles. Her life was the American life as advertised in “Leave it to Beaver” and other shows from the 1950s, but far from the norm in real life. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister who, through the course of Mom’s childhood, pastored churches in Iowa, South Dakota, Michigan, and retiring in Minnesota; and his home was legitimately peaceful. People talked, people prayed, and people got along with each other without yelling or explosive expressions of anger. Mom’s parents had the traditional gender roles, but the impression I had from the telling is those roles were never imposed upon by either of her parents. She came from an environment where love was the rule, but like anyone who has kids, that saint like love can evaporate at a moment’s notice. That doesn’t make her lovingkindness a pretense to buy off God or please daddy when he’s looking, but it does mean that she tries to love when she does slip into anger. When my father in law confronted Mom about her temper, she knew exactly what she needed to do to regain that lost peace. She had a good foundation. I’m jealous of that, but I don’t wallow in the envy. I’ve a mom who shows me what love and peace looks like. At present, I do not know what work I need for my unlearning and reeducation, but I know I want what she has, and I’m lucky I get to call her mom—luckier still, she likes being my mom.