Back in the dark ages, when my husband and I got engaged, I was at the receiving end of well-meaning comments from those who felt it was important to prepare me for the “evil mother-in-law” syndrome. I’ve got to say that in the 30 years she was my mother-in-law, Margaret Steiner was never anything but a gracious, caring, fun-filled woman who showed me nothing but love.
Never once was she critical of me; in fact, she was my most devoted fan from the days I worked as a feature writer for the Lima News, to the days that we started the Icon. It was she, not me, who clipped one story after another, often posting it on the door of the fridge, along with the pictures her grandchildren had drawn — an honored location.
When our oldest daughter was born, Margaret announced that she had decided to retire from her position as charge nurse at the Mennonite Memorial Home. She was needed — she told her boss — to babysit so that her son and daughter-in-law could continue working without worrying about their child. From the moment we dropped off Lindsay to the moment we picked her up, nothing interfered with the attention she received from her grandmother.
We would return home at the end of the day to find a happy kid…along with carefully written notes that documented her every activity. We knew exactly how many ounces of milk she’d drunk, how many naps — to the minute — that she’d taken, her activities (including smiles, gurgles, cries, etc.), which books she had been read and which pages she paid most attention to, as well as what every diaper had contained when changed. I am not making this up.
As Lindsay began to scoot, then crawl, then walk and talk — it was all there on the note at the end of the day. If we couldn’t be with her, Margaret was determined we’d know exactly how our daughter had spent her day. This was not intended to make us guilty about leaving her; indeed, it was simply Margaret’s way of making sure we didn’t miss anything or feel left out. If Fred’s dad went outside with Lindsay, there was Margaret, walking right behind him to make sure he didn’t drop her or to take photos of her as she learned to climb ladders and pick flowers in the garden.
When our youngest daughter was born, Fred’s mom decreed that his dad would watch over Lindsay, because only she was capable of caring for the baby. Only she could keep careful notes about this child’s daily movements (no pun intended). As the girls grew older and entered grade school, Grandma was always waiting at the door to make sure they made it to her house safely.
Never once in their years of growing up did she tell me that I was doing something wrong or that I should have done something differently. She didn’t interfere with our decisions about punishment or lack thereof. I suspect, though, that she always had a sympathetic ear for the child who had been in the wrong, because that’s where they wanted to go if they were mad at us.
Over the years, I got to know her as a determined, independent woman with a penchant for criticizing anyone who suggested that women were less important than men. I’ll never forget the day that the girls announced that Grandma was boycotting a pizza chain, which had a local store, because it was in support of pro-lifers. She was clear in her belief that women should be able to decide for themselves in abortion was acceptable. That statement contributed to their early belief in women’s rights and their understanding of “feminism”.
Quite honestly, I don’t remember ever having an argument with her. If our spouses argued with each other — we watched and laughed together over their silliness. I shared her opinion that my husband didn’t always listen to either of us and we liked to remind him of that. I think he sensed the fact that we were simply bonding in a way few in-laws do, and he was not going to do anything to interfere with our relationship.
During one of my last visits with her, I told her something I’d never been able to say out loud. I thanked her for being the best mother-in-law I could have asked for. She just turned her head and looked at me. She didn’t respond verbally, but I like to think that she understood.
The last 24 hours have been long and exhausting, and in the darker moments, I think I’ve lost a wonderful friend. But in my heart, she’s still here. Always. When I need someone to laugh with about my husband’s ability to ruin a pair of shoes, I’ll remember her whispering in my ear. “He always did wear out shoes faster than anyone else.”