Naturally, she worked hard at being a kind and courteous mother-in-law although, when I first noticed that her fists were always clenched when she talked to me, I’d been a little worried. I soon learned that her fingers were gnarled from a lifetime of gardening and arthritis, and the only thing she disliked about visiting was that she couldn’t be out in her garden.
Everything grew for her, even the miserable, neglected plants she rescued from our apartment. Weeds shrank from her, sensing that, momentarily, her gnarled, rapier-like index finger would curl twice around their stalks and wrench them – roots and all-from the earth. She had a greenhouse full of begonias sprouting from leaves, pots of perennials started from clippings, and flat after flat of seedlings dated exactly when they should be planted outside.
I don’t know what we would have talked about if it hadn’t been for her garden. In those days, my husband and I preferred dreary, depressing foreign films while she preferred happy Disney ones. We hiked and camped on our vacations while she went on guided tours and stayed in hotels on hers. We laughed at black humor and New Yorker cartoons and she laughed at – well, I never figured that out. It certainly wasn’t those wicked Alec Guinness movies we loved in which the criminals always prospered. "Crime shouldn’t pay," she’d declare grimly. "Movies like that send the wrong message."
Then one February she signed up for a summer tour of European gardens and talked about it for months ahead. Included in the literature sent by the tour’s Swiss-German promoters was the information that many seeds would be made available for the tourists to buy.
"How thoughtful!" I said, but my mother-in-law said "Nein! It’s so we won’t filch seeds from the gardens. That’s forbidden." She read from the pamphlet: "Achtung! Tourists must obey local customs and have respect for the gardeners so willing to offer their homes to public view." The morality was right up her alley. She, herself, always asked permission to collect seeds, unlike "So and So," she said, "who carries tiny envelopes on garden tours for that very purpose."
Well, she went off on her tour, full of excitement and moral rectitude, and when she came home there was a light in her eyes I had never seen before. She could barely wait to get out of the airport before showing us what she had. "Look," she said, unwrapping – not an official seed package but a bit of Kleenex — "a whole seedpod from a Pseudonymus prevaricus on an old Bavarian estate."
"You filched a seedpod?" I asked, incredulous.
"No," she declared, her eyes still shining with a joy untouched by guilt, "it fell into my hand while I sat on a brick wall."
Nothing could fall into those tight, arthritic fists, I knew. On the other hand, I’d seen them move with the speed of a coiled snake to trap bugs on her begonias so maybe it had happened.
"And you kept it?" I asked, pretending to be shocked.
My proper Swiss-German mother-in-law just nodded and grinned. She was absolutely gleeful, a word I had never expected to apply to her. Did I remind her of her remarks about those wicked English movies? Not on your life.
She planted her seeds and they grew vigorously – what else? …and every time she looked at the flowers, a gentle smile lit up her stern face. Then her shoulders and back would move, twist ever so slightly, and relax, as if remembering an old stiffness that had magically fallen away.
Valerie Cooley is living in Coos Bay, Oregon. When she’s not playing with her beautiful and brilliant young granddaughters, she paddles her kayak on the bay, watches birds, gardens, and contradances once a month Email: firstname.lastname@example.org