Lessons from Lettye :: Learning to be a Mother-In-Law

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My son is getting married this month! My baby boy—the one who put me through whatever challenges he could come up with, the one who never believed he would have to be an adult, the one who always chose the most questionable girlfriends—is marrying a lovely, kind, perfect-for-him woman. I couldn’t be more happy AND terrified.

I’m not sure why I’m terrified that I will be a bad mother-in-law. I had a wonderful role model in my own mother-in-law, the most lovely Southern lady you could ever know, Lettye (my first husband’s mother). She was the epitome of grace and hospitality along with a generous dose of fun and adventure. From the moment I met her, she embraced me with all my Midwestern approaches and slowly shared all her wisdom with me. Perhaps if I can just remember what I learned from her. . .

Lesson #1

Never accept “no” as an answer; always propose an alternative. Early on in our relationship, Lettye excitedly presented me with a lovely pleated knit skirt and matching sweater. The color was a perfect pale pink and I wanted to love it. But any girl with wide hips will tell you that pleated skirts are not our friends. I hesitantly told her that it was just not for me, and she quickly said “of course not” and it disappeared. When my daughter was just shy of three, Lettye presented her with a beautiful Easter dress. My darling girl looked her straight in the eye and told her, “I don’t wear dresses, Mimi.” The next time we saw her, she showed up with a velvet pantsuit for my daughter. She always knew how to find the right solution.

Lesson #2

When eating out, order more than you want so no one goes hungry (but make sure to snag some for yourself). We called her the fastest fork in the South for a reason. Whenever we went out to dinner, she would have her fork tasting your dish before you had the first bite. She could get her bread plate around the table for samples faster than you could think about what to taste first. Also, she never ordered dessert because, of course, she was going to taste everyone else’s. I remember once when I traveled with my husband’s family to a soccer tournament in Orlando, we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch. After asking me what I wanted, she proceeded to order at least four more items not for her, but to make sure I didn’t go hungry. She always wanted to make sure everyone got exactly what they wanted.

Lesson #3

Teach life lessons with gentleness. As I mentioned, Lettye perfected Southern hospitality. I came from a more casual Midwestern background and had no idea about formal table settings, etiquette, or traditions for events like weddings. When situations arose and I was at a loss, Lettye just modeled whatever behavior needed to happen and I followed suit. She also introduced my children to setting a beautiful table and to seating everyone boy-girl when possible; and she made it fun for them. She always wanted to share her traditions, but she never made you feel like you did something wrong.

More Mother Than Mother-In-Law

We lived in Orlando for many years and I frequently came home to Birmingham, first by myself and later with the kids. Friends were often surprised that I split my time between my family and my husband’s, even when he didn’t travel with us (he was a chef). But Lettye and my father-in-law, Graham, loved me like their own. They showed me grace when I needed it, support when I was afraid to ask for it, and abundant love for me and our children always. I could not imagine ever staying away from their loving home and from Lettye’s unconditional acceptance.

When she died in 2008 (just months after Graham), our world lost a truly lovely Southern lady and I lost a mother, not a woman merely related by law. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all from Lettye for me, as my own family grows and welcomes new members, is that I should just continue to be the mom I have always been to my own children while widening my embrace to bring another into the fold.

To my darling son’s future bride: I’m ready to channel my inner Lettye to bravely, warmly, and graciously become your mother-in-law. Welcome to the family!

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Born in Wisconsin, Chris moved South with her family, first to Richmond, Virginia, and then to Birmingham when she was 12. She loves being a girl raised in the South, and her only remaining Midwestern traits are a love for the Packers and a fondness for bratwurst. In 2010, Chris reconnected with Christopher, a former Birmingham-Southern College classmate, after a random meeting in the cereal aisle at Publix. They married in 2011, not realizing that they were bringing together a perfect storm of teenage angst with their three children. Today, Chris is the center support that keeps the seesaw of her family balanced, leading a blended family of three young adults and enjoying an empty nest. Before the pandemic, most days were busy managing client relationships for a corporate event production company, but after six months of unemployment, she has become the parish administrator aka “the church lady” for her church. When she's not working, she loves reading a rich historical novel, volunteering with her sorority, and planning their next wine-tasting excursions.

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