I shared a house with my mother-in-law for 22 years.
In that amount of time a person can become accustomed to the habits and routines of everyone in the home. But while I knew and understood those things about Jan Lillywhite, I’ve concluded that I only knew a little about her mind.
Jan was private, at least around me. She was a bit of an anomaly, and her responses sometimes carried unexpected wisdom or humor. I was rarely prepared for her comments, because they often seemed to be steeped in something she had learned in the past – a bit of knowledge she felt important to share in the future. I don’t know what drove that. I never will. But in this uncertainty there are some things about Jan Lillywhite I know:
She missed her Mom > One mother’s day about 20 years ago, Jan, the stunning Mrs. Clark and I were out for breakfast at a greasy spoon on Aurora. When Sherry asked Jan a question about her own mother, Jan broke down and covered her face. Her sentimentality was something she kept very close, so this was unexpected – but very welcome. It was the only time that I saw her cry in public. And while she rarely spoke of Margaret Swart, it was clear when she did that her own mother was held in very high regard.
She loved her children and grandchildren > As I compiled photos for today’s slideshow, I noticed something important. In each picture that had a child of any generation, she had a certain look on her face. For Jan that was neither a smile nor a frown. It isn’t described in words, other than to say it was possibly the most contented expression I had ever seen on her face. Her love for Sherry, Eric, and the grandchildren could be seen there – in the relaxed eyes and slight upward turn of the lips, and more implied than demonstrative.
Her life was an intricate web of detail > Every corner of Jan’s life touched another corner. And there were 8500 corners. In her world, every move, every item, and every word had a connection to each other. At the doctor, she was “Four Foot Eleven and A Half” and not just “Five Feet.” Coffee took Six Creamers – no more, no less. A trip from one end of the house to the other included plans to do at least five different things along the way – instead of just walking. It saved energy. Her dishwasher load jobs were NOT just a bunch of dirty stuff piled on the pullout shelves; they were magnificent puzzles of efficiency that used every potential centimeter of space inside. I was never able to match this skill or satisfy the need to have it “done right.” Living this way was complicated; to this day I have NEVER figured out how she managed to organize books or load the dishwasher; those things will live with her in legend, as I stack my books wantonly and clank bowls and plates in my pursuit of keeping a clean kitchen.
She was the Master of Remote Controls > Jan had two cable lines to her room, feeding two TVs, a DVD, and a DVR. Through some marvel of planning, Jan was able to watch, record, and plan like she was the director of a Media Command Center. I was the one who set up the equipment so many years ago, but I have no clue now how it works. That, like the dishwasher, has become family legend.
She loved her plants > Books, TV, and crafts brought Jan much joy. But more than these she loved gardening. When she was physically able, Jan kept nice annuals, perennials, and other greenery which now dots our yard. This will never be the same, due to my acute ability to kill anything green. But for those plants which survive my ten brown thumbs, they will remain at our home as part of Jan’s gardening legacy.
The relationship I had with my mother-in-law is probably what you would expect: Not Easy. But it was the right thing to do, having her close and making sure she had a comfortable retirement. During my care for her in the final days I can safely say – as the rest of her body grew weaker – that her hugs grew stronger. Her thankfulness in those days, like the warm smile she had around children, was implied. It was just something we knew, even if we didn’t see it all that much. This came from connecting with her on a level which took 22 years to cultivate.
While I only knew her a little, what I knew meant a lot.