Mothers-in-law have a bad rap. It only takes a simple Google image search to know exactly what I mean. The pictures you’ll see show women who are on average about 425 years old with gray hair. Most of the ladies are carrying a rolling pin or some other kitchen device and have an affinity for pink sponge curlers. I don’t know who made these terrible images synonymous with mothers-in-law, but I can tell you for a fact that they clearly never met mine.
I don’t know what your mother-in-law is like, but mine is a lioness. That is, a lioness without pink sponges curlers or jostling wooden spoon. I say lioness and mean it in the best possible way. My mother-in-law takes care of business and is always the one to call when you’re in a tricky situation. She knows how to help and is as cool as a cucumber (usually). She’s as good with medical advice as any doctor, could argue politics with Hillary and makes a pot roast that would force a vegetarian to question his or her beliefs. It is no great wonder that she is the center of our family.
Jeremy (back row, second from right) and his mother-in-law, Sherry (front row, second from left), and their family at a wedding shower.
When you’re the bedrock of a Jewish family you have an intense list of responsibilities. Somewhere near the top of that list is being in charge of holiday meals. Each year we all gather for various holidays and watch as food appears as if by magic from the kitchen. It must have been magic my mother-in-law’s brow isn’t furrowed and she hasn’t broken a sweat. Maybe we’re having pot roast or her famous rainbow Jell-O. It could be a bagel brunch with the cream cheese she combines with chives just the way I like or her short ribs that I wish I were eating as I type this. All of it is good. All of it is full of stories. All of it goes on her wedding china.
She’s had her china for 45 years and our family has eaten from those plates for just as long. Do you ever stop to think of a plate’s history? Not the history of dishes in general, but the history of the holiday plates you eat from each year? Who has carried that plate, eaten from it, laughed over it? Who will dine from those dishes in the future? Think about all of that history, all of that shared tradition. When you think of your dishes in this way they suddenly have a very different seat at your table. Those dishes become personified, the only silent member of your Jewish family.
A few weeks ago I was helping my mother-in-law set up her dining room for our Passover Seder. We started talking about her dishes. They were $25 a place setting when she originally got them. It has been a while since I shopped for China but I’m almost certain it can’t be found for $25 a place setting today. Twenty-five dollars a plate was a crazy amount to pay 45 years ago. Her mother-in-law had to convince her that one day she would be happy to have those dishes. Somewhere in our reminiscing about the many holiday meals that have been eaten on her plates and how she collected the china slowly over time my mother-in-law said, “…and someday these dishes will go to you.”
I was taken aback. The gravity of what she was saying was stunning. It wasn’t about those dishes. Those plates, though beautiful, are silly. Plates break. Plates can’t talk or hug you. They shatter. Those plates will eventually turn to dust like everything else. I wasn’t thinking of my mother-in-law’s china as I bit my lip to fight water from running out of my eyes. What she was handing me was much more precious than dishware. When she said, “…and someday these dishes will go to you,” what that translated to was, “you will some day be the tradition keeper for our family.”
Keeping family tradition alive is a big responsibility, but we’re Jewish and that’s how you do. Not to mention, when the lioness speaks you do as you’re told and ask your pesky questions later. I’m not picking up those dishes tomorrow. I hope to not have to take them for 150 years, if only that could be. Until that day comes, however, I’ll be here watching and learning from my favorite lioness. You know the one. She’s the one without pink curlers and I hope every day to make her proud.
For more posts in the “I Love You Too, Mom” series, go here.