A few years back, folk familiar with my parents and our family would make this comment, “Your father must be a saint.”
They were referring to the fact that his mother-in-law lived under his roof for over fifteen years. They viewed his apparent patience and generosity as qualities deserving of heavenly consideration. It wasn’t unusual for people to say such things to his face. He would rarely respond and quietly endured the compliment.
A fellow who accepted his mother-in-law into his home just a few years after getting married had to be extraordinary. Struggling to establish a career, to shepherd a growing flock of toddlers and to nourish a relationship with his young wife would not be an ideal point in life to bring a guest into his home, much less his mother-in-law. From the outside of the family, Dad had to be a remarkable young man.
His mother-in-law, our grandmother, went by Mamon pronounced with all the Gallic intonation we could give it. Mamon, a widow for many years when she lived with us, had emotional ups and downs. She was a loving person, but unstable in her perceptions of the world around her. To the grandchildren she was just Mamon.
To our parents, she was a source of strife. She shared her opinions readily. Many times those opinions would have been better left not uttered. Even with these instances of stress peace reigned as far as this untrained, inexperienced youngster could tell.
Mamon always had her own bedroom. This meant that my parents often went without a bedroom. For a number of years they slept on a fold-out couch in the living room. It wasn’t so much a sacrifice as it was simply what the circumstances demanded.
We never thought much about these circumstances. The arrangement seemed natural. Alternatives to the situation didn’t receive exploration. We were a crowded crew of folks making do.
When we moved to Gramercy, Dad built a home to accommodate the brood. Mom and Dad got their room. The two older boys got a room. The three sisters occupied one bedroom. The two youngest boys had a room. And Mamon got her room. The bedroom resolution worked. A little more space allowed us more room to maneuver. Having a sanctuary within which to withdraw allowed conflicts to dissipate. This improved the atmosphere in our home.
As I grew older, I recognized an undercurrent of tension. I suppose it had always been there. Mom and Mamon had a bit of friction in their relationship. The mom versus daughter sort of thing I had supposed. They could rub each other the wrong way. And the rubbing was frequent. Raised voices and tears were followed by forgiveness and resolutions to be kinder to each other. Hat seemed kind of normal in my book.
During it all Dad stoically endured and found ways to cope. He and I never talked about any of this back then.
My memories are of moments. Some good. Some bad. Some very good. Some very bad. All of it never erupted into divisive, irreparable rifts.
I don’t recall when it happened, but I mentioned to Dad how special he was to have his mother-in-law live with his family. I declared I wasn’t so sure I could do it. I am definitely not a saint.
Dad said, “I’ve heard that comment a long time. Son, I’ll tell you who the saint was. Your mom was the saint. She had to live with her mom. She had to listen to her mom criticize how she raised her kids. She could not keep a house the way her mom thought she should. She didn’t know how to cook. She didn’t do this well and was terrible at that. Your grandmother rode your mom and rarely gave her a compliment. Your mom kindly sucked it up most of the time. She could not please her mother.
"But your mom was one of the smartest, most competent women I have ever known. I was plumb lucky to have her.
“I got credited for stuff I didn’t do. But I didn’t know how to set the record straight.
“All I could do was love my wife and the mother of my children. I am no saint. Your mother is the saint.”