The December sky is gray here at the beach and the water, darker, almost black. The tree outside my window is bare and crooked branches jut at odd angles. I love looking at the tree with its strangely-jointed limbs and often find myself staring at it, my eyes following the jagged pathways carved on its trunk. It is not a graceful tree, nor is it particularly beautiful, the way some trees are. This one is unusual, yet it commands my attention by its very ugliness. Perhaps there is some meaning in that, but, today, I don’t care much about meaning.
The air is still and cold. I’ve lit a candle and it sputters on the table next to my desk. On the bookshelf across from me are scattered photographs of my family. In one, Emily, my daughter-in-law, and I are sitting together, both smiling, laughing really.
We were attending a wedding and the wine was flowing. My granddaughter, Virginia, was about three years old, and she was having a ball, dancing beneath the fancy tent set up in the pavilion. Emily and I had been dancing with Virginia until we could no longer move–we were both tuckered out. Someone had chosen just that moment to snap our picture.
Looking at it now, I am amazed at the ease with which we share the space, our shoulders touching. We seem to be leaning into each other, the love between us palpable.
When the word ‘mother-in-law’ is thrown about, usually lots of jokes and laughter result. People love to swap ‘horror’ stories about the mean or vicious or foolish thing someone’s mother-in-law has done. I’m convinced one of the reasons the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi made it into the Hebrew canon is that that story shows a dramatically different side to the oft-maligned mother-in-law/daughter-in-law connection. In the Old Testament, very few stories about women are included. In many of the vignettes, the women remain unnamed. Not so with Ruth and Naomi. They are named and their story is of some length. And the words, now used in many wedding songs, still stir. ‘Thy people shall be my people and thy God, my God.’
We have forgotten, perhaps, when young lovers marry, such an act not only joins two individuals; a wedding joins two families. When Emily came into our family, she was happy and excited to do so. She loved my son, but she also loved us. She loved playing bridge and singing Christmas carols around the piano. She loved cooking and eating the family favorites–Lavila’s cookies and chicken salad. She loved playing bridge and taking walks, our family spilling across the entire street on occasion.
And we loved her; I loved her. I loved the way she laughed, uncontrollably, when something really struck her–it was a series of giggles that seemed to rumble out from her body like a gurgling stream. I loved talking about God and faith and ethics and men and women and families and problems and friends and food and drink and all the delicious subjects we found together. I loved teasing her and her teasing me back. I loved the way she loved my son and I loved the way she mothered my granddaughter.
I loved the insightful, careful way she showed her love to me. She is the one who discovered my passion for the Tudors, a passion I had kept under wraps for almost 20 years. She is the one who came to visit when my husband and I relocated and I found myself unhappy. She thought if I could see some family members there, in that new house, I would feel more like it was my home. One of the things she taught me was to be attentive–to look closely and carefully at the other person–really ‘see’ that person–and then act in ways of love.
Today is December 1.
Six years ago today, Emily died.
That event reminds me of the tree outside my window– graceless, bizarre, unfamiliar. The edges of chaos touched my neatly arranged cosmos and everything shattered.
There was no meaning then; there is no meaning now.
My tree will never be anything but grotesque, but I love it anyway. I find myself clinging to the hope that as I continue to gaze at it, something will be revealed–something unexpected and oddly beautiful.