I met Jan during the first summer that Jeff and I were dating. I spent a week in Chicago with him and his family. The morning after I arrived, I remember waking up and coming downstairs to find Jan and her mother-in-law at the kitchen table drinking coffee and laughing. Jan gave me a cup of coffee and told me to sit down, that we could make a list of all the things I wanted to do while I was visiting. In that very moment, I chose my mother-in-law. I already knew that Jeff was a pretty big deal and I figured that if she had such a great relationship with her own mother-in-law AND she liked coffee drinking and list making, marrying Jeff would be win-win for me.
And I was right. As my relationship with Jeff progressed, Jan and I continued to get to know each other. The first time I went wedding dress shopping was with her – she and I cried happy tears together when I tried on the first dress. For a wedding shower gift, she gave me the perfect gift: a grilled cheese cookbook (the most complicated thing I’m willing to cook) and a book about the history of coffee; meaningful gifts because it meant she understood what was important to me. She was the driving force for the landscaping when we bought our house, as she knew I hadn’t the inclination or knowledge to do anything more involved than send Jeff out to mow the grass. She took me shopping and helped me pick out plants I liked that would come back every year with no effort on my part. Every single year when those lilies bloom and I haven’t lifted a finger to help them, I smile at her foresight. Over the last few years, she has assured me I’m her favorite daughter-in-law except for one time when I drank the last diet Pepsi out of the fridge. Even then I was quickly forgiven. Occasionally, I have failed to return her call for a few days at a time but she has never seemed annoyed with me. When I have returned those calls, I’ve always been able to talk to her – she has listened intently to my lengthy, mind-numbing work stories, long after Jeff has tuned out.
Yarn Eating Grand Kitties
When Jeff and I adopted two badly behaved kitties, Jan tried really hard to like them in the beginning, bringing them gifts of cat treats and toys and deftly shooting them off the entertainment center with a power washer. However, as the devil cats destroyed our furniture and took to hissing at her, she gave up and resorted to clapping loudly whenever they got near her or tried to eat her latest crochet project.
Speaking of crochet, I feel confident that if we ever had to go without heat in the winter, we would survive only because of the beautiful blankets she has crocheted over the years. The most recent one she worked on is for me. She told me she wanted to make me a blanket and so we went shopping for yarn and I showed her something I thought was pretty. It turns out that what I had pointed out was actually knitted, not crocheted – I told her it was the coloring I liked more than the pattern of stitches but she bought the supplies to knit and learned a new pattern anyway.
There have been countless more happy and funny moments over the last few years but nothing compares to her role as grandmother to our girls. When my oldest daughter was born, having been convinced we were having a boy, she looked at me and said, “What the hell are we going to do with a girl?” Despite her shock, having granddaughters hasn’t been so difficult for Jan. She stayed with us for a few weeks after each of the babies were born and made it possible for me to get sleep and start to adjust to my new life. Her visits increased as our family grew and the bonds that she shared with the girls got stronger and stronger. The only time that’s been a problem is when they want her over me, and when that happens, she looks at me and grins as I tell her to pack her shit and go to the porch to wait for the next train headed north.
As Jan became a grandmother, I got to see a new, very protective side of her. When my first born was a couple of months old, her doctor ordered an ultrasound of her hip joints. Jan came along for the appointment. The ultrasound tech put herself in grave danger when she made Jan’s grandbaby cry. I was fairly certain that security would be escorting us out of the building. Another time, I was driving and she was in the passenger seat, the girls in the back, when someone pulled out in front of us. Jan nearly climbed over me and out the driver’s side window to tell the other driver what she thought about his error. Her string of choice words wrapped up with, “And I’m from Chicago!”
Her energy for our girls has always been endless – she’s taken them to parks, ball games, zoos, pools; anything fun, noisy, expensive, or wet. She has given them her undivided attention and played silly repetitive games and sang songs with them for as long as they wanted. She’s taught them so many things – after each visit, Jeff and I marvel at all their new tricks.
Grandkids are made for spoiling, or so said a t-shirt I saw once. During her visits, she has spoiled all of us. She’s taken care of the kids while we worked and cooked delicious meals that are far beyond my skill set; things that involved meat and vegetables and grain and dairy all together. Jan introduced me to Heath bars and Sara Lee Cheesecake, corned beef and cabbage, éclair cake, and chicken cha-cha. More times than I can count, I’ve come home from work to a freshly tended yard with newly planted flowers, clean windows, and the girls playing with a brand new outdoor toy, colorful sidewalk chalk, a swing set, or a new kiddie pool. Occasionally after these visits, I’ve had trouble locating various kitchen appliances and dishes but that’s a small price to pay for the good food, help, and all the rest. For corned beef, she can put the plates away in the silverware drawer if she wants.
I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the most important way that Jan has influenced my life: She raised Jeff, my better half, a thoughtful and patient husband who now goes by the title Super Dad at our house. From the stories I’ve heard about Jeff and his brother growing up, it seems she had her hands full but Jan clearly knew what she was doing. Especially the part where she hit them with her shoes, that’s my favorite. On our family vacation to Myrtle Beach in 2012, Jeff’s brother was my stand-in husband while Jeff spent much time golfing. He helped me with the girls, was patient, and we grocery shopped together without arguing. Well, by the end of the week, we were all threatening divorce. But I digress. Jan raised two sons that are smart, funny, generous, and loving.
If I had known that my mother-in-law would be in my life, my daughters’ lives for such a very short time, I might have returned her calls a little faster or been better about thanking her for all she did for us. I would have asked her to teach me to cook, to crochet, to plant flowers that require effort on my part to grow. I would have taken more pictures of her with the girls. I would have asked her to stay longer when she visited or to visit more often.
But I’ve missed my chance for all of that.
So what I will do is tell the people I love how I feel and thank them for all they do for and with me. I will channel her protective side when I need to, give my kids my undivided attention. I will love her son, my husband and be as patient and loving to him as he has been to me. I’ll keep Heath bars in the cabinet and weed the landscaping from time to time. I’ll teach myself to knit and finish the blanket she started for me. And perhaps one day soon, I’ll learn to make corned beef and cabbage. Maybe I’ll do that. Maybe not. But I will make sure both of my girls remember their Grandma Jan, her love for them, her energy, her spirit.