A tough act to follow

Over the last 10 days, I’ve approached the keyboard to spill my latest observations. I’ve started several blog posts, all of which remain unfinished, like the homework assignments of my less productive youth.

Each time, a distraction beckoned and I fled my desk chair—to tend to a client, an errand, a chore, a phone call, a doorbell, a cat, a newspaper, an egg timer, or a call of nature. Let’s just call it seasonal attention deficit.

A week’s worth of grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning are finished now, on the eve of December 23rd, as finally I sit quietly, with my feet on a pillow, laptop atop my lap, glass of wine nearby, committed to reflect quietly before the Yuletide.

It’s times like this I wish I could communicate with my late mother-in-law, who used to make the most wonderful Christmases.

Many years in a row, on December 23rd, we pulled into her driveway in Shelby, North Carolina, where the streets were lined with luminaries. We walked into the house to the smell of pot roast and pound cake. Her pound cake was the best, but at Christmastime, it snuggled beneath a warm blanket of caramel frosting. For days, she pampered us with our favorite drinks, savory hors d’oeuvre, special ordered breakfast ham, homemade pecan pie, ambrosia that took hours and hours to make. The house was beautifully decorated and the bed sheets crisp and line dried.

Christmas morning brought one thoughtful gift after another, perfectly wrapped. She would sit straight up, on the edge of the sofa, hands clasped between her knees, delighting in our smiles as we opened our gifts. Every year, after all gifts had been opened, she brought out one last surprise for each of the three of us, my husband, his brother and me. It was always the same sized box—three inches square, tied with an elastic gold ribbon, and holding inside a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. She and my father-in-law likely didn’t have it to spare, but they knew how deeply we needed, wanted and appreciated it.

She allowed everyone to nap or watch sports until dinner and then again after the big meal, while she and her husband washed all the dishes.

When it was time for us to leave, she packed turkey sandwiches with Duke’s mayonnaise and sliced dill pickles wrapped in foil into a cooler, along with several cans of Coca-Cola (and occasionally a can or two of Schlitz) for the ride home, and waved good-bye from the porch.

As a young bride, I never gave the first thought to what kind of preparation this all required. She made it look so effortless. No sighing, no brow-wiping, no complaining, no asking for help in the kitchen.

She passed away right after Thanksgiving in 1993. After the funeral, her sister asked my help in cleaning out her things. We came to the closet where the Christmas decorations were stored. Her sister regarded the stacked boxes of glass balls and garland. She turned to me and said, “Nancy always hated Christmas.”

Nancy, if you can read this, please know you’re my hero and my inspiration. I’ve tried to make a beautiful Christmas for my family, as you did. I just can’t seem to control the sighing, brow wiping, complaining, or asking for help in the kitchen. How ever did you do it?


December 22, 2011 · 11:13 pm

18 responses to “A tough act to follow

  1. Dennis Jones

    Fabulous post.

  2. Ellen

    Marty married you cause you’re so much like Nancy. Give yourself some credit!
    You knock yourself out to make others happy! Enjoy the holidays!

  3. Carolyn Hirst-Loucks

    What a tribute to your late mother-in-law. What a model to follow for any task – carry out a task to the very best of your ability, to be cheerful and positive throughout the execution and keep the final goal foremost in your mind regardless of your personal feelings. Nancy sounds like a warm and loving woman. Have a great holiday and thanks for sharing your writing gifts with others.

  4. What a beautiful homage to your MIL. Have a glorious holiday.

  5. Deb Prewitt

    What a touching story. I find it beautiful that you admired your mother-in-law, as so many people complain about theirs. It sounds like you have a lot of wonderful memories. I know you are making the same memories now for yourself and your family. Merry Christmas to you.

  6. This is a wonderful rememberance. You were very fortunate to have such a lovely mother-in-law. 🙂

  7. Jo

    Love it.
    My in-laws died before my marriage, but I have similar reflections about my own parents. In our house, the Christmas tree and its intricate garden below all happened after my brother and I were asleep. We went to bed with only an advent wreath visible, and in the morning, there was the tree, gifts, all sorts of decorations… that my parents made happen after they sang at the midnight Christmas Eve service at our church. In the morning, we had to wait until everyone was up before going downstairs together, singing “Joy to the World.”
    I am a poor imitation.

  8. Your description of Christmastime in Shelby took me back to my Grandmother’s Christmas. My mom read this and tears filled her eyes. This is my favorite.

  9. Penny

    What a thoughtful and hard-working woman Nancy was! But I hope you’ll be satisfied with your efforts, brow-wiping and all: Maybe by being willing to ask for help, for allowing things to look less than perfect on the surface, you can create lovely memories without hating the holiday yourself.

  10. Marty

    I am so speechless…

  11. John

    Thanks for the post Monica. I can only imagine how proud Nancy must be to have you for a daughter-in-law.

  12. Patsy Grady Abrams

    I loved this blog as it reminds me of the many wonderful christmases with my Mother. Her cookies, her wonderful food and fabulous decorations that she made from scratch, and top that off with her wonderful smile and a heart full of love.

  13. Mom

    You made me miss Nancy. I know she loved you. And this was a wonderful tribute to a real lady, the last of the Southern belles.

  14. Forrest Welch

    Just sitting here in my home enjoying quiet peace. Back of house open to pool area and freshly cleared waterway behind the house. I would drive back to Shelby from Memphis in 1985 and 86. Since that time from here in Florida.

    Mama did go all out for us. Thanks for the memories Monica. Seems like there was Milk based Oyster stew and shrip cocktails at those gatherings as well. And she seemed to do everything effortlessly. Do you remember the giblit gravy? She started teaching again after I left the house and even had guys going to Gardner Webb staying in my room or Marty’s room for extra money. The little boxes with $100.00 bills were a big sacrifice for her.

    She did Christmas with grace and I still see her perfectly.


  15. JOe

    Wow. Very Powerful.

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