A nod to my mother-in-law, a sweet woman. She has just finished another stint with us and has now gone home to Nazareth in the new year. This is a snippet I wrote about three years ago, the first time she came to stay with us solo.
Here is a mathematical equation.
What do you get when you add a housecoat, to pots and pans plus a TV minus a set of teeth?
You get a command post. Let me explain. This story is about my mother in law. It is also a story about how to be ok in the world when you need to find your feet again.
My mother in law’s given name is Therese but she goes most of the time by Im Khalil, (mother of Khalil) which is the Arabic title of respect, given to a woman when she births her first boy.
Im Khalil is a woman of surprisingly few words, and not only because she cannot speak English, it’s simply her way to keep her own counsel. Im Khalil is 85 and though she has the usual physical challenges of a woman that age, she does not grumble. If she does, her complaints are between her and the Virgin whom she calls El Adra in Arabic. Im Khalil hails from Nazareth, Israel, which might more adequately explain her parlance with the Virgin, they are basically neighbours and women who understand each other. The Virgin is just around the block from her house, at the Annunciation Church. Im Khalil had some serious vows and fasting to the Virgin last year because her husband of 66 years declined at home from cancer and died. I don’t know whether she talks to Jesus - talking to his mother instead might be a better way to bring some pressure to bear.
I do know this, that Im Khalil considers her dealings with the Virgin to be basically square, nothing left owing. I once asked her how one weathers all the many changes of a lifetime, and she clucked and simply said, “Hai Mish Shurl-Na” (literally, that’s not our job) To worry about all those wherefore and why’s are not what we’re set out to do, those are things best left to God to figure out. Now Arabic culture has fairly defined roles as I often have been reminded by my wife. A man’s work is to bring home a paycheque, take out the trash, pay the bills, shovel show etc. A woman’s job is to cook and keep house and preside over kids. Arabic cultural life is filled with bumper rails that keep you apprised of your duties in the world and God help those who stray.
My mother in law came to live with us this summer amid all the concerns in her family over how she was going to manage, who was going to stay with her, fears that she might forget a pot on the stove, fall down, slip in the shower, etc. And then there was the grieving part. Word had it she seemed to cry in private, although she has one answer if you ask her how she is or if she needs anything. “Hamdalilla” which means praise God in Arabic.
Now my wife is a nurse, and given to strong opinions regarding what people must and should be doing. She dispenses that advice in a one-size-fits-all manner that belies the possibility of individual preference. When her mother arrived, she was full of that kind of daughterly advice, Mom sit down, did you take your medicine today? Don’t try to go up the stairs on your own, etc.
In the effort to be good hosts, we also endeavoured to keep her schedule full with all the usual outings that one might enjoy in the proximity of our home, Niagara falls, car trips, etc. Because she has bad legs we got in a wheelchair to help out and we thought we were set. Im Khalil obliged our efforts to keep her occupied and just replied Hamdalilla every time you enquired after her well-being.
Gradually a change settled in and it became clear to us, that perhaps less was more, that maybe Im Khalil actually LIKED being at home with not too much on her plate for the day. The chair it seems hurt her behind and was also undignified, she said. Going out demanded that she get dressed up and put in her teeth which hurt her gums, and worse if you take her out all day she will NEVER pee in a public washroom even if she is twelve hours out from the house.
No being stuck at home is the thing we assume the elderly don’t want, yet it is where she seemed most at ease. Im Klalil is partial to Arabic soap operas, so the TV is going most of the day and that is the way she likes it. Gradually the teeth came out, the bath robe stayed on, and Im Khalil seemed to settle back into patterns that I reminded my wife, might more resemble the routine of an elderly woman who had been retired for roughly thirty years.
I’m not sure if there is a definite okay that comes after widowhood, but I do recall distinctly the day I would say Im Khalil turned a corner, and seemed genuinely engaged and happy.
It happened in the most unassuming way. On a car trip we stopped at a roadside vegetable stand and my wife went to pick up a few things for supper. She returned shortly with a small plastic bag over which Im Khalil clucked in disapproval when she scanned the contents. Im Khalil got out, and proceeded to the stand to inspect the vegetables herself.
Now all of Nazareth is on a 45 degree incline and the only way to get down to the market is to navigate the many stairs that circle and wind through the narrow streets to the downtown. Because of her bad legs, and the cares over her husband, Im Khalil had not done her own grocery shopping in years, her youngest son tended to stop by every day with groceries in tow.
Getting out of the car, Im Khalil took charge, and proceeded to taste, pinch and prod in a shopping extravaganza that took half an hour. She returned beaming, to the car, with many bags brimming with fresh produce, and a seeming agenda in mind – supper. When we returned home, the Arabic tv and bathrobe came on, the teeth and kitchen knives came out, and supper was full speed ahead.
Im Khalil was a virtual steam engine, chopping, peeling, mincing, braising, and when we sat down that night, it was obvious that her spirits were in order, and that 65+ years of culinary practice had not been in vain. When we feasted on the ample fare, Im Khalil seemed in her own element and perhaps even thriving.
We washed down supper with some hot tea and Im Khalil, who has a sweet tooth, popped a sugar lump in her mouth. “MOM” my wife blurted out, “DON’T EAT THAT, YOU HAVE HIGH SUGAR”. Her mother looked at me before popping another sugar cube into her mouth, and said, “Your wife doesn’t know how to shop for vegetables!” “That’s funny”, I returned, “your daughter doesn’t know how to COOK either!”.
I laughed, and Im Khalil laughed and then my wife laughed too.
All the kings horses and all the kings men could not put together Humpty Dumpty again after his spill, but it is amazing how much a bathrobe, a few pots and pans, and a soap opera going on the side can do to revive the spirits of an elderly woman who needed to find her feet again after some of life’s toughest changes.
Yes, a bathrobe, pots and pans, and a tv minus a set of teeth is not an equation that most people would understand, but now I understood why Im Khalil and the Virgin had called it square. Letting go of that which is best left for God to figure out, and understanding our own work and place in the world, can work wonders for the human soul.