“Charles, before you got here I checked every single expiration date to make sure not one thing in there is bad.”
My mother-in-law delivered this line with equal parts sugar and salt. I was digging in her refrigerator, putting together a Bloody Mary for my wife. As any decent bartender knows, a good Bloody Mary doesn’t come from a bottle; it comes out of the refrigerator door: the juice of lemon, lime and olives. Maybe add some Worcestershire, some Tabasco, and maybe some garlic or anything pickled. The words from my mother-in-law gave me pause not because I wasn’t building a good drink or because she lacked the items I needed. I paused to consider what was said because many years before I had written a story about some of the out-of-date items I had discovered in her fridge. Perhaps that story had been grounded in the truth but I might have taken a few factual liberties for the benefit of my tale. (I wasn’t lying about that damn butter.) Anyway, no doubt it says something about me that I was willing to throw my mother-in-law under the bus for a few laughs, especially when you take into account that this is the mother I got to choose rather than the one I didn’t.
The mother I didn’t choose turned out pretty well for me. The woman who birthed me is strong and kind. The oldest of three girls, raised by a single mother on a teacher’s salary, the mother I didn’t choose loves me unconditionally and would fight a bear on my behalf. (Then she would scold me for being stupid enough to provoke the bear but that’s a whole different story.) The mother I didn’t choose looks at me with eyes that rarely find fault and smiles in a way that propels me forward.
As a father to four children, I readily admit no one is more important than a good mother. If we are fortunate, the mothers we don’t choose shape who we become more than any single person in our lives. This mother I did not choose is the reason I cry when our dog dies, empathize with panhandlers, attempt to see both sides of an argument, and do my best to spoil my children with love. The mother I did not choose is the birthplace of the best parts of me.
The mother I did choose came with the woman I love. Now, maybe some of you would suggest that a man can love a woman but not her family. I don’t buy it. A family in general, and a mother in particular, can ruin a good love story. (Maybe he took a lot of words doing it, but this pretty much sums up what Shakespeare was all about.) My wife’s family, and the mother I got to choose, have done nothing but strengthen the feelings I have for my wife. A writer herself, this mother promotes what I write like the letters are made of gold. The mother I got to choose has also slogged through more than one of my manuscripts with a red pen and probably plenty of mumbling about commas and grammar. She even put together a big wedding for us that we really could have cared less about. That sounds terrible but we tied the knot on the night I told her daughter I loved her. Maybe the actual marriage proposal didn’t come for eight or nine months after that and the wedding still four months later, but we didn’t need a preacher or a ceremony or even a gathering of the people dear in our lives to tell us what we already knew. Still, without complaint and not nearly enough thanks, the mother I got to choose pulled together a beautiful weekend. We flew in to do the deed and flew right back out.
I know plenty of strong women. Two of the strongest women in my life helped me become who I am and helped shape the woman I will forever love. So, here’s to good mommas and those lucky enough to have them. Both the mommas we got to choose and the ones we didn’t. Because they are good mothers they will forgive our shortcomings, they will shine us on when we need to be picked up and they will ease us away from things that will come to no good, like stories born among refrigerator doors and in the untamed mind of an occasional scoundrel.