I've heard all the mother-in-law jokes. But like many convenient clichés, they did not apply to my mother-in-law, Ruth. Because mother-in-law jokes are far too conventional for such an unconventional woman.
She was, as they say, a character, one straight out of a dark Southern Gothic novel. Her wit was sharp and often pointed, like the scissors she used to cut the fabric of her quilts. "Never use fabric scissors for anything but cutting fabric," she once warned me, though I don't think her heart was in it—she never bothered to hide those scissors from the many grandchildren who swarmed around her house.
Quilting was a passion she embraced later in life, about the time I first came to know her. Like many housewives in the 50s and 60s, she sewed clothes for her children, seven in all. When they all left home she turned to "playing with little pieces of fabric," as she called it, though she appreciated a finely sewn quilt the way some people appreciate a Van Gogh still life.
She was an artist with scissors and thread and fabric, divining how all those pieces fit together as if they were parts of a child's puzzle. I could never make sense of it, the few times she tried to instruct me in the dark arts of quilting. Plus, I was deathly afraid of the sewing machine—it didn't seem wise to me, to put fingers so close to moving needles like that.
We made a pact: I'd stick to putting words together, and she'd stick to putting fabric together. And she never let me forget my intentions to be a novelist. She nagged me: "When are you going to finish your book?" she'd ask, every time I phoned. I finally did, and dedicated it to her, as much for her character inspiration as for her dogged encouragement.
Ruth could've been a novelist herself. I remember driving with her once, a back seat full of bored grandchildren, through the deep secretive woods of Tennessee. We were looking, as you do in a Southern Gothic novel, for the old family graveyard. As we turned down a narrow overgrown track, she and I began recounting our adventure as if it were indeed a novel. Ruth led off: "They turned down a deserted road, lined with disgruntled tiger lilies." I whooped with laughter, spoiling the mood.
They say Ruth had a dark side. (Don't all the best characters?) Not for nothing did they call her Ruth-less, though that was before I came around. She'd mellowed considerably by then, I'm told. I figure I knew her at her best. She was an active, mature woman, who loved to travel almost as much as she loved quilting. She spent summers at Yellowstone, traipsing up and down trails that were deceptively treacherous. She volunteered in the local elementary school, teaching kids to learn through movement. She swam every evening at a nearby gym, and even bought a pair of those dreaded tennis shoes—women like Ruth didn't wear tennis shoes, except for exercise. She wore heels, even that one time I went with her to a state park on the edge of California's rocky coast.
That's the time Ruth almost gave me heart failure. While we were admiring the crashing surf, she motioned to me that she was going back to the car. I nodded, and later I realized she had no car key. I headed back down the path, but she was nowhere to be found. I remembered seeing a scroungy looking man when we'd parked, and I feared the worst, especially when we could find no trace of her, not even a heel print.
I figured she'd walked into the nearby town, where we'd seen a quilt shop. Typical Ruth, I thought, but the ladies at the quilt shop hadn't seen her either. They called the sheriff, and I was afraid the next call would be to my husband's family—how could I admit to them I'd lost their mother?
Finally, while I was hearing of the sheriff's plan to put a "bird" in the air to search for her, a phone rang. The shop owner shouted into the receiver: "Do you know anything about the missing grandmother?" The reply: A succinct "I AM the missing grandmother."
Ruth told me later she only wanted me to know what it was like to have to call the sheriff for a missing relative, because that's the sort of thing writers need to know. She was like that, turning every misadventure into a story that would be told around the campfire, or rather, from the sofa in the kitchen where she held court, over and over.
Because you always heard Ruth's stories again and again, but like the others, I pretended I'd never heard them before. It was best that way.
Perhaps because I was willing to listen to her stories, she and I got along better than most sons' wives did with their mothers-in-law. When my own mother lost her "faculties" at too young an age, I turned to Ruth, a surrogate mother who shared my passion for books and possessed a keen desire to travel. She was there when I took my oldest daughter to college, sympathizing, yet letting me know I wasn't the first to experience the pang when a child leaves home.
Later on, that same child moved in with Ruth, an arrangement that worked well for aging grandparents and a young teacher-to-be. And when my daughter finally moved out of that home, too, I commiserated with Ruth the same way she'd comforted me. We both missed the same daughter, and in sympathy I promised I'd come visit. Soon, I said. Soon. But we both knew I wrote fiction, and my words had that ring of hyperbole.
Ruth, in her later years, was no longer the intrepid woman who scaled mountain paths in her heels and pierced an uninformed remark with the precision of a seam ripper. Her wit and wisdom were blunted by age, dimmed by time.
Like the tragic and certain ending of any self-respecting Southern novel, Ruth is gone now, but not forgotten, not as long as there are those of us who remember those ephemeral scenes, those stitches of laughter, that character in high heels and designer sweaters and a smirk that hinted of many more tales.