Unintentionally

Our beautiful Granny in 1971, just before Eric's wedding in Atlanta, Georgia

Our beautiful Granny in 1971, just before Eric’s wedding in Atlanta, Georgia

“Small kindnesses often, unintentionally, produce the biggest payoffs.”
Richard Paul Evans

Sometimes people give us gifts that they don’t even realize they are giving us.  Here’s my memory of one such gift, an intangible expression of an all-too-unusual kind of love.

Because my father has always been a good sport about being teased, all four of his children have indulged in making fun of him about various things over the years. I think Daddy is able to take this kidding because he senses the enormous respect that lies beneath the affectionate joking. But once in awhile, he will scold us for being out of line if our teasing touches on another person.

When I was in my twenties, about the time I began to think I knew everything better than anybody else did, my father pulled out his wallet to pick up the tab for everyone at a restaurant.  This was his typical practice, but on this occasion I happened to notice that his wallet was literally falling apart at the seams.  “Daddy,” I chided him, “for a man of your means, that is one sorry-looking wallet.  Why don’t you buy yourself a new one?”

With tears in his eyes, Daddy reprimanded me, “Jewel gave me this wallet.” I was instantly mortified at my words.  Seeing my abrupt silence, and perhaps feeling the need to suppress his own emotional reaction, he added, “She always gave me something I could use.”

Jewel was our generous and sweet Granny, his mother-in-law, my mother’s mother, who had died years earlier.  I have no idea how long ago she had given him the wallet, but it brought to mind a similarly tearful reprimand I had witnessed as a very young child, this one coming from Jewel herself, in defense of Daddy.

We were all at Granny and PaPa’s home on one of our relatively rare visits, and Granny heard Mom giving Daddy a hard time about something.  “You be good to Carlyle!” she snapped.  My mother, already feeling impatient, snapped right back. “I’m so sick of you taking Carlyle’s side all the time!”

Granny got tears in her eyes and said “Others only gave me their dirty laundry to wash today. Carlyle gave me twenty dollars.”

Twenty dollars was a lot of money in the early 60’s, but that wasn’t the memorable part of this exchange.  Like my father’s response to my laughter at his broken-down wallet, Granny’s words to my mother were a rare rebuttal sparked by a true affection that was always apparent between my father and his mother-in-law.

In my lifetime, I’ve observed with no small amount of chagrin the endless jokes about mothers-in-law, and the pervasive reality that so often lies behind such cruel humor.  Any in-law relationship, it would seem, is one that is fraught with peril, a psychological minefield that is best traversed with care.  Even when appropriate care is taken, the inherent risks often take their toll, leaving wounded people limping along with real or imagined slights nurtured over the years into longstanding grudges.

The treasured gift my Granny and my Daddy gave me is the memory of at least one giant exception to what seems a very sad rule.  As with most such gifts, it was given with no awareness, unintentionally made manifest because of a mutual respect that brooked no insults.  While I can identify with my mother’s frustration (like her, my temperament has more of her father’s plain-spoken Scots Irish volatility) I also appreciate having that frustration trumped by reasonable defense when needed. And I will always cherish the knowledge that my Granny and her eldest child’s husband remained each other’s champions insofar as such defense was ever needed.

In this season of giving objects as gifts, let’s take a few minutes to focus on giving each other the intangibles that last far longer; the memory of loving words, compassionate actions, and enduring examples of life well lived. I wish you many such gifts, this year and every year!

One year ago today:

Something truly sacred

39 Comments

  1. raynard

    Good Morning Julia. Happy , Happy , Joy Joy, as I’m about to get my late Mom homemade soup recipe ( For a minute I thought I could ” take it where I work@ Dupont to be analyzed”..My mother’s gift was sharing what little she had ,hospitality they used to call it. The present church we attend humbly specialize in it especially with food, fellowship and friendlyness. My blog writing, baking cakes and sharing information and resources are my gifts that 1 I cant take with me when I leave this earth, 2 I’m not called to be Scrooge with them. My hope and pray is that what I share is a blessing and encouragement to others. That’s why this past summer, my wife and I did the “pigs in the mud cake” The recent strawberry one I baked for a coworker’s anniversery, he just informed me it encouraged his wife to”get her feet wet” in baking”..’My job is “done here”( wiping the dust off my feet& the baking flour off my face lol) Time to scrape some ice off my van’s windshield, be blessed and have a great day….

    • Raynard, I have come to believe hospitality is one of the best gifts that can be offered, and is growing increasingly rare in this world. My Granny’s table seemed to always have extra chairs pulled up to it. Often, the people who would be eating with us were people I had never seen before, yet there was always room for one more at her table. Long before diversity was so fashionable, she and my Papa had a young man from Hong Kong (originally from Viet Nam I think) living with them in their cozy little home in a small Alabama town. You just never knew whom you might meet at Granny’s house. You keep baking those cakes and spreading the friendly welcomes…our world is sorely in need of open hearts!

  2. Sheila

    Julia, what a beautiful gift, in the form of a story, you have given us this Monday morning. As we choose our husband or wife, as the case may be, we are also getting the “in-law” package. I got lucky! We have returned home, from our annual Vann (three sons and wives) holiday weekend with Dr. Vann, OUR DAD. In a way, we had more fun, more laughter than is even expected with family…… much less in-laws! Anyway, thanks for letting me put in my two cents. Whether they’re in-laws or out- laws, 🙂 find something to love in them! I so hope and pray for a joyful week for y’all. Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, thanks for sharing your thoughts on your own “second family.” I believe, as with so many things, the bad stories tend to get all the press. We need to keep sharing the happy loving stories! Some people think that it’s foolish to be optimistic, but perhaps they just don’t hear enough of the true and real-life blessings that are everywhere once we start to look for them. Thanks for joining us is spreading the cheer!

    • Shiela – this is the first time I have realized that grand old gengleman, in his nineties, was a Doctor. When did he retire?

      • Sheila

        Eric, I have mentioned Dr.Vann several times here, with both love and pride. I see similarities in Mr. Carlyle and our Dad. He retired most recently in 2007, after devoting many years to clinical research. That’s the short and modest story! Thank you so much for your interest. He is GRAND ….. we love him so! 🙂 Sheila

        • Maybe I’m just showing my age, but I do think Tom Brokaw was not wrong in saying they were and are our “greatest generation.”

  3. This photo is of the one person I think about, if not on a daily basis; I can be confident in saying that not a week has gone by (in the almost exactly 33 years she has been away from us) that I have not fondly remembered her example!
    And, there is more than one tangible gift I can put my hands on today, that came from her generous Christmas offerings. I would be surprised if in her whole lifetime she ever had more than $50,000 (total) with which to do it, but I was one of more than fifty people who can point to things, like the widows in Acts 9:39, to show tangible blessings from her kind hands. She immediately became a loving grand-mother-in-law to my wife, (her first); and that wife would be the first to affirm I have not scratched the surface, describing the esteem in which we hold that Jewel of a human being!

    • I remember how joyful it was to see the celebration of Granny’s life at her funeral in 1980; how natural it seemed for the casket holding her body to be, in the old country style, in her own living room instead of a funeral parlor. There were tears but also much laughter, sharing, food and fun. Daddy came up to me and said “this is the kind of party Jewel would really like.” At one point I stepped out on the front porch where there was a middle-aged man quietly smoking a cigarette. He asked if I was related to Jewel and I told him I was her granddaughter. He said “You don’t know me, but Jewel fed me during the months I was without a job. She gave us groceries and never said a word about our paying her.” I remembered all the years she and PaPa ran their little store, and the huge box full of “tabs” for people who couldn’t pay immediately for their food. She didn’t only feed people at her table; she fed them from the shelves of her store and from the canning she put up each year. In fact, as you know, she was in the act of giving some canned food to a visiting friend when she died, by all accounts instantly, of a massive heart attack. Everyone said how appropriate it was that she died in the act of giving something away. Truly she was one in a million or maybe even a trillion!

      • One in a trillion – Love it!

        • Thank you Eric. As Granny used to exhort us before church, “Be pretty.” 🙂

  4. Chris

    Loved seeing such a great picture of Granny early this morning- her birthday is, of course, this week. Stopped by the folks’s place after school drop-off, Daddy was already out and about. But I shared your entry with Mama; she said to be sure to tell you she echoes your sentiments! She said if Granny ever even thought Daddy had mistreated Mama in the slightest that Granny would be quick to her defense. The in-law adage never held true for Mama with Granny or Papaw.
    Thanks for the post, love you all, prayers continue, Merry Christmas!

    • Thank you Chris! Granny was truly a remarkable person in so many ways, and she loved all her family, whether they were born to it or married into it. I can remember helping her paste in her green stamps and gold bond stamps that she saved to buy Christmas presents for her many grandchildren. I’m glad you shared the post with your Mama. Give my love to everyone and have a wonderful holiday season!

  5. Julia,
    I did very well maintaining my composure while reading today’s post to myself, but totally “lost it” while reading it out loud to George! You have done great credit to a truly special lady. The memories you shared are such a blessing to all of us who knew and loved her! Thank you for putting it so eloquently!
    Love you!

    • Carla, of all the people in our immediate family, I have always thought that you were most like Granny in so many ways. I know you share so many of my memories of staying at her home, playing games with our cousins or playing Barbies with Roberta or visiting with Aunt Peggy. So many of our generation had a wealth in childhood that was unrelated to money!

  6. Rene

    Wow again Julia! This post really hits home for me, as I am faced with the probability of becoming a mother-in-law, and really, really, don’t want to fit the stereotype. Your Granny was a “jewel.”

    • Hi Rene, Granny was fitly named, I’ve always thought! It’s hard to overcome stereotypes but I think we can manage it if we stay aware of how easily we fall into them. Having good examples to remember is a great help. Thanks for being here today!

  7. Beth

    Julia, the first time I heard a mother-in-law joke I didn’t understand that hard feelings or hostility even existed! My granny Fugate doted on five daughter-in-laws and two son-in-laws, and they all called her “mommy.” My own mom loved her and my grandpa Fugate long before she married my dad. I confess to feeling proud at family reunions when I am introduced as Eunice Fugate’s granddaughter. I know I’ll hear a story about her generosity and sense of humor almost 30 years after she passed away.

    • Thanks for sharing this story, Beth! Together, maybe we all can bust some old worn-out cliches and establish a different set of expectations :-). I really appreciate you being with us – and your comment!

  8. Sherrie Kennedy

    Julia, this brings back so many memories. I think about Granny often. It’s been a long time since I thought about the green stamps. When her and papaw lived on East Franklin Street in Russellville, The A&P grocery store was just down the street. We spent the night with her an papaw every Saturday night. They would take us to church on Sundays. She would send me, Rip, Dean, & Tom to the A&P to pick up some groceries. We would walk to the store to get them for her. Sometimes they would forget to give us the green stamps. She would send us back to the store to get them. She said I use them to buy Christmas presents for everyone.

    Oh, thinking about them taking us to church reminds me of all the spit baths she would give me because I would get something on my face before church. Also when I got a certain age she decided I needed to wear hose to church. She would make me wear a garter belt an hose. I hated it! I guess they didn’t make panty hose back then.

    I have so many great memories of Granny and Papaw..

    Julia, I think of you, Jeff & Matt often and I keep y’all in my prayers.

    • Sherry, thanks so much for sharing these memories! I was thinking today about how Granny would always tell us to “be pretty” at church. She taught me that “pretty” was a word that described behavior, not looks. Years later Matt’s school principal in California seemed interested to hear me use the phrase “acting ugly.” I explained to him that ugly had always been a behavioral word in our usage. Granny taught me that. I also remember fondly how Granny always wore her hats to church. Even though I always loved it when she ran those little stores, I think I loved the East Franklin Street home best. It was so cozy and quaint. I remember waking up to the sound of PaPa singing gospel songs on Sunday mornings as he shaved. I remember how I loved Granny’s butter beans. I have never had any before or since that were better. So many memories! Thanks so much for remembering us in your thoughts and prayers. It means a great deal.
      P.S. I always spell it “PaPa” because that was the way Granny wrote it to me in letters. She was a great letter-writer and I still have so many letters from her that I will never part with.

      • MTR

        So many memories around this time of year go back to Granny. She held the family together. I can remember the Christmases at Uncle Billy’s where you if you were a grandchild, you’d have a present under the tree from Granny and PaPa – something. That has been years ago, but I can also remember thinking in my mind then that there must have been at least a hundred at the gathering… had to be. I know now that wasn’t the case, but Christmas at Uncle Billy’s was an event and Granny was in the center of it.

        I can remember as a child, Granny would whisper to us, “pick up the tinsel out of the floor and I’ll give you a dollar”

        I can remember going to Granny and PaPa’s house shortly after she died, and being in the guest room with Sherry and Mama and seeing a dress Sherry had picked out for Granny. Sherry went on many a shopping outing with Granny. They were a powerful team. I remember crying with Sherry and Mama as we looked at the dress – then laughing because we stumbled upon a Christmas present for one of us kids that we weren’t supposed to see. That Christmas, I don’t know what the rest of the grandchildren got from Granny and PaPa, but Chris and I got a bow tie quilt. It had not been quilted just yet, but Granny had chosen the fabrics for the quilt and the top was ready. I looked at that quilt just this week.

        Granny made each of the grandchildren and great grandchildren feel like they were the most important of all. She had lots of love to give, Looking back, I don’t know how she did it. But I’m glad she did..

        • Thanks M, I love reading these memories. Granny’s family was so large but as you say, each and every one of us was special to her. I love reading where you say that Granny and Sherry were “a powerful team” – so true! I have a quilt from Granny that she made me just a couple of years before she died. I used to joke that she made one for each granddaughter when they got married, but she gave up on me and gave me mine before I was engaged! 🙂 Reading all these memories about Granny, I realized that it seemed to me she cared about each and every person she ever knew. It’s like her heart was big enough for the whole world. I wouldn’t doubt that there really were 100 people around at Christmas – her door was truly open to everybody. Thanks for being here with us and sharing your memories of Granny!

  9. She sounds like a saint. Much like my mother-in-law.

    • I am hearing so much about wonderful in-laws! Just goes to prove that the stereotypes are often not justified!!!

  10. Aunt Peggy

    Julia,
    So many things to say about mother. During a hard time in my life – six operations in five years – mother and daddy was my support. They would take me home with them until I was able to go back to work. Nannie, a sweet, black lady helped mother. So mother put a little princess (Sherry) in the bed with me so she could call if I needed help. Nannie called us “Queenie” and “Princess”. As soon as I would get better, mother would say, “Let’s go get some fabric to make you some clothes for work.” So off we would go to get the fabric and head to Belgreen to a lady that sewed for both of us. I had some nice stuff (mother paid for it). And later, when I moved in with her on Franklin Street, I will never forget I had a call from a lady to see if I would meet Jim Ashburner – just to have coffee. I said “NO”. Mother said, “You may really like him. I hear he’s a nice man.” Of course the story wrote itself. She loved him right off and he loved her until the day he died. Daddy always carried Jim a rose for his desk as long as mother would have one blooming. When he struggled off and on for 8 or 9 years he said, “I know why you can nurture me the way you do – you got it from Jewel.” She asked me to never let anybody leave her at the old funeral home when she died. Bring her home. All of the family was OK with it, although I did get some flack from family and friends. But I could just see her smile since she got to spend that night at home. As Mark was telling you about the gifts, Sherry had worked tirelessly with your Granny to wrap and hide the gifts for all of you before she died. That’s how Sherry knew about the gifts. Julia, we’re all so thankful for this tribute to mother and also, we are all hoping that you do get to be home with Jeff and your family at Christmas. I love you so very much. i could write a book about her and PaPa, but I think people might get bored – haha.

    • Peggy, thank you for these memories. Since Daddy hasn’t posted any comments I wasn’t sure if he and Mama had even seen any of this, but I talked to them tonight and they both said they had really enjoyed all the memories. More than have a century’s worth just from my generation! I told them it’s been like an online family reunion. I love the story of Nannie, Queenie and Princess. I never knew Granny had talked you into meeting Jim. That gift would be hard to top! If you do ever write down all your memories send me a copy – I will never get bored. 🙂 We love you!

  11. Julie -we also have such wonderful.memories of Granny. I never knew any of my grandparents but one and she died when I was young. When I married into the Richardson family , she became my Granny also. I still to this day miss the birthday card that we all received with a dollar in it. I never have a birthday that I don’t think about it and a few years ago I was going thru my cards in the attic and found one from her that still had that dollar in it. She taught us all so very much. I do believe she had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known. Proud to call her my Granny also..

    • Rebecca, thanks so much for sharing your memories of Granny. As Chris said, there was never such a thing as an “in-law” with Granny. I am so glad you were able to have her as your Granny too. I had forgotten about the birthday cards and the dollars – I bet Eric and Carla both will tune up and cry when they read that, we all felt the same way about our sweet Granny who never forgot any of the many, many birthdays she kept up with. For the six children, their spouses, 17 grandchildren (I think?), their spouses, and all the great-grandchildren, a dollar each adds up to more money than she ever spent on herself. I think one reason all these memories are so much fun to share is that it’s impossible to think of Granny without thinking of each other. That very well may be her greatest legacy. Thanks so much for being here with us!

  12. MaryAnn

    Julia, When our youngest son, Dale, & his fiancee were dating for 3 years; we spent much time together. At the beginning, I told Diane that she would be my 1st daughter-in-law; so she needed to teach me the “how-to’s” of being a good mother-in-law. One night as we were deciding which movie to see the vote was 2 to 2. Diane said, “A good mother-in-law would choose the one I want”. We have had much joy & laughter from that comment & we are friends these 25 years later.
    Thank you for sharing the beauty of a woman showing such strong love! Great example & model to follow like these comments suggest!

    • Thanks Mary Ann. You and Granny are both among the all-time people lovers I have known! 🙂

  13. I love Richard Paul Evans ~ great quote! What a lovely story to share! xo

    • I’m not familiar with Richard Paul Evans although I do have one of his books (The Christmas Box) which I hope to get around to reading someday!

      • Oh they are all lovely! You would love them! 🙂

        • I’ll let you know when I read one of them!

          • Terrific! They are good reading when loved ones are sleeping!

            • Well that should work for me – I find myself the only one still awake every night :-).

  14. Such a touching tribute Julia. Your dad and Mother-inlaw shared a really lovely relationship which seems rare. I’m not sure where the defensiveness comes from, but it seems the norm. Even though my ex and I divorced 20 years ago, I continue to exchange a yearly card with his mom. She’s always been a bit of a hero to me, marrying late to enjoy travels and she was also crafty and loves art, music and reading. Betty was from England but married a man who lived in a small town rural Alberta. I was always amazed at how well she adapted to this change in lifestyle. Her garden was stunning and home so welcoming. I suppose she’s on my mind today because I just got her card yesterday with family news and good wishes. A devout tea drinker, I really miss her company and our long chats more than I ever missed her son, LOL isn’t that funny.

    • I think it’s lovely that you still enjoy your relationship with her. I would venture a guess that she never hurt you in the way he did. Perhaps your relationship with her is a special grace given what you had to go through with him, and I’m sure on some level she understands why you felt you had to divorce him. The great thing about that blog post on my Granny is that many people commented about their positive relationships with their in-laws. It’s good to know that here, as in other areas, there are many happy stories even thought the bad news gets the most press. I think the defensiveness often comes from the collision of two very different worlds and ways of thinking that is almost inevitable when two people marry. Also the unfortunate truth that for many people, the old adage “blood is thicker than water” is all too true.

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