When my mother-in-law’s health began declining in April, I started writing my feelings down. I continued to work on what I’d written right up to her funeral. As per Kathryn’s wishes, only the minister at her church spoke during her funeral, and he gave an amazing homily. He spent hours with the family the day before the funeral, listening to stories and taking pages of notes.
I thought about publishing what I’d written right away, but it didn’t feel right. Then summer came and I felt that I needed to be present in that time, feeling the sunshine and my feet on the ground.
Tomorrow I start back to work, and I feel that I can put a cap on this summer and the period of recharge and recovery by sharing what I wrote.
Below is my tribute to Kathryn Griswold, my mother-in-law.
The first time I met Kathryn, she and Rick came to New York City to visit me and David. She asked David to pass a message on to me, and I revealed to me that she was worried about meeting me. She’d been having some migraine issues, she wanted me to know, and if she was quiet, that I shouldn’t take it personally. It was immediately clear to me that she wanted to make a good impression. Here I was, so nervous about meeting her, and she was equally nervous about meeting me. At the heart of what she wanted was to put me at ease. That’s how she was. She wanted us to come as we were. She wanted us to be our messy selves without apology.
I never met Kathryn’s mother, Elizabeth. She died before I met David. But I feel as if I knew this matriarch through the stories Kathryn told. I got the sense from Kathryn’s stories that she had high standards for herself and her children. She may have been something of a perfectionist. She set a high bar, even if unintentionally. I could always tell that Kathryn made a conscious decision about the kind of mother-in-law she wanted to be.
When Kathryn visited us once we had children, she didn’t care if the kids were in grubby play clothes, the floor was covered in toys, or that lunch was served in take out containers. What mattered to Kathryn was that she was there, with us. Impeccable housekeeping, she understood, was a tall order to fill for new parents. She wanted the real us. And she wanted us to know that she would be there for us unconditionally.
And when she spent time with you, Kathryn was an amazing listener. She wanted to hear about everything, the good and the frustrating. She would listen with compassion, nodding, and then telling her own stories. We always ended these conversations with laughter.
I have been so lucky to have Kathryn as my mother-in-law. She never brought any expectations or judgment. She shared her struggles—raising three kids, one of whom was a very difficult toddler, ahem, who grew up to marry me—and those stories were invaluable to me. Speaking of that difficult toddler, I can tell you she probably told me the stories of David as a child about a hundred times each. About how she had to learn to help him transition between activities, how she read a book, which I believe was titled The Difficult Child, to learn how to parent him. She always told me these stories to let me know I was doing a good job.
I am raising some little difficult humans of my own. At the end of days spent together with Kathryn, after the kids were in bed, I would collapse onto the couch and she would start to tell me all the things she had observed and overheard that day. She would recount what the kids had been playing or saying, and she would tell me all the best parts. She knew that I needed to hear how bright and inquisitive they were, the little funny things they said, the little kindnesses. And I did. She knew that I was tired and hard on myself. So she’d tell me these stories and we’d laugh. She did an amazing job of imitating them!
Once, when Calvin was a baby, David and I both got a terrible stomach bug. So bad that we couldn’t even stand up to change Calvin’s diaper. I remember I said to David, I don’t know if we can do this alone. He called his mom, and she hopped in the car and drove the 3 and a half hours from Tupelo. She saved us. She was the one we called when I went into labor and we needed someone to help with the kids at home. She would happily drop everything to care for her grandbabies. While we’ve been in Brazil, every time we got sick or had a stressful time, she would always say that she wished she could be here to help. And I knew she meant it. Not to mention that she and Rick hopped on international flights to visit us twice. There wasn’t a distance too far to see her family.
The grief of a daughter-in-law is complicated. Kathryn didn’t raise me, but she’s been an essential part of my life for 15 years. She understood David in ways that were so unique. She and I were perhaps the two people on this planet who know him the best. She helped me see him through the lens of his whole life, his childhood, his teenage years. In turn, I told her about the man and father he’s become.
As a general rule, I’m not a fan of euphemism, so I prefer to say died instead of “was lost”. But loss is also a state of being separate from its euphemistic meaning for death. Loss is the gap, the void, the empty spot. I have lost something with Kathryn’s death. Nothing has gone astray or been misplaced, but there is something missing. In losing Kathryn, I haven’t just lost my mother in law, I’ve lost a confidante and a champion.
I’ve lost the person who will say “Rick! Stop winding them up before bed!” when Pawpaw won’t stop chasing them around the house as we’re trying to wrangle them into pajamas. Who will the kids curl up with to play a word game on the iPad? Who will read me crazy Facebook posts and comments? Who will track every tornado in a three state radius and send us updates?
There isn’t anyone. This is just the loss, this hole in our lives that we will learn to live with.
She would hate to be the center of attention, and even reading this would have been so hard for Kathryn. But now that she’s gone, I’ll crow about her all I want. It’s the least I can do. It’s our turn to see and share the best of her.
Kathryn taught me what it means to open my heart to a new member of the family. I will remember that when it’s my turn. I will open my heart without reservation or judgment or comparison. I will make space and listen and tell stories. I will see and share the best when others can’t make it out for themselves. In this way, she will live out the Jewish condolences that I especially love: her memory will be a blessing.
Kathryn Muller Griswold, January 25, 1955 – May 12, 2023.