What I Learned As A Son-in-law

My father-in-law died when my wife was three, so I never knew him. Then my mother-in-law proceeded alone to raise five children deep in the Arkansas woods in the midst of depression poverty. Despite that nightmare, she claimed she gave the world five perfect children. Then I came running out of nowhere and married her baby.

A greenhorn at son-in-lawing and having been raised motherless, I failed miserably to simply take her word for her claim to such an accomplishment. She seemed genuinely surprised. It took years of pain-ridden experience for me to discover what she meant, but by then she had died, saving me from having to admit that she was right all along.

You see, I broke all the rules that bring happiness to every mother’s daughter. A few months after our marriage I came home from another mundane day on the job, and my wife seemed withdrawn, increasingly so into late evening. The house grew quiet and empty at bedtime, so I went searching for her. There she stood in the kitchen, arms folded, a dour expression pulled over her face. I inquired into what did that to her. Her answer was to start singing morosely, “Happy birthday to me…” Lucky for me, she never tattled on me to her ever-poised, sharp-eyed “Mom”—my first hint that this woman’s daughter might at least approach Mom’s claim to her daughter’s perfection.

Mom was a delightful woman, full of cordiality and warmth. She could charm the socks off anyone, no matter their social standing. It’s just that I was in a position to find out that to jeopardize the happiness of her children was to edge out her social graces. Slowly, crunched between Mom and her daughter, I got frequently jolted into a knowledge of common decency. But I was yet far from completely convinced of the perfection of my mother-in-law’s offspring.

Then it happened.

This woman’s daughter gave birth to the two most perfect, beautiful little females the world could possibly imagine! I was there. I can attest to it myself. You can take my word for it.

Instantly, Mom’s assertion made perfect sense. Oh, I’d never say outright that my daughters were absolutely perfect, but neither would I admit to outsiders that anything was wrong with them. (Same thing).

So I immediately set about kissing them, and hugging them, telling them “I love you, sugar,” remembering their birthdays without fail, showering them with Christmas gifts, Easter and Valentine cards, telling them they were beautiful, their new dress was pretty, that they were smart, they did a great job at whatever—ALL THE THINGS MOM HAD EXPECTED ME TO DO FOR HER BABY EVERY SINCE I MARRIED HER AND TOOK HER AWAY. After all, she had done it since my wife’s birth; so why, she wondered, shouldn’t I simply take up where she left off? It would have been the decent thing to do. I realize that now.

You know, I spent the best years of my life shedding tears, sweat, and even a little blood in the shaping and dressing of two wonderful daughters so that I might present them as a trophy of my crowning achievement to the men of their choosing, and for the betterment of the human race, just like my wife’s Mom did for her. If I fail to honor Mom’s labor of love by DISCONTINUING the work she began in her daughter, I bring disrespect to what her very life was really all about; I bring to her sunset years undeserved pain and disappointment instead of deserved relief, tranquility, fulfillment, and peace with which to face death.

So I would say to every son-in-law who is taking his wife for granted: Please, never forget that you married someone’s daughter, and she is the embodiment of a labor of love. And I would say to every son-in-law to be: Take care, young friend, for the life of your bride does not start with you; you are only her second chapter. What attracted you to her was the work of her parents in the first chapter. Think it over and remember, someday you might have a daughter of your own, and if the man she marries fails to pick up where you left off, virtually all of your own parental labors will have been in vain. Are you prepared for such pain?

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