Listen to Your Mother-in-Law

Judi Russell - New Orleans, Louisiana
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, April 27, 2015
Judi Russell

In-laws have a reputation for being overbearing, pushy, and controlling. However, Judi Russell received some wise advice from her mother-in-law, and she tries to heed that advice every day.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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When I was a newlywed thirty-seven years ago, my husband gave me a lacey, shell-colored nightgown. I told my mother-in-law the gown was far too beautiful to use every day, that I’d save it for special occasions.

My mother-in-law gave me some good advice: “Wear the nightgown. Just think of all the things people were saving for special occasions that were destroyed during Hurricane Betsy.” Betsy had roared through the New Orleans area in 1965, only four years before my wedding, and people were still talking about the destruction it had left in its wake.

As a born worrier, I’ve always admired my mother-in-law’s attitude of living in the present. Over the years I have tried to adapt this philosophy to every facet of life, leading me to believe in the rightness of enjoying the “now” rather than hoarding for the future. I took her advice to heart, and over the years I’ve set the table with dishes I love, served coffee in my favorite cups, and used the family heirlooms passed down to me by my aunts as often as possible. True, things occasionally get ripped, chipped, or stained, but to me, that just gives them more history.

And I’ve tried to widen the practice into a way of life. I believe more than ever that time itself is something to be enjoyed today, not hoarded for tomorrow. Today really is the best day to hug your kids or befriend a stranger or tell people just how much they mean to you.

The wisdom of this advice came rushing back to me in August, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in a way Betsy never did. My mother- and father-in-law lost everything—house, car, beautiful yard, eight decades of possessions. When I first walked into my mother-in-law’s home, I was horrified to see dishes, clothing, pictures all piled up in front of her house. But her reaction was true to form—she told me how glad she was that she had enjoyed her possessions when she had them. It reinforced my belief that all we really have power over is today; in a heartbeat, or a hurricane, you can lose it all.

Today they live in an apartment in a strange city an hour out of town, surrounded by household goods that hold no memories. My mother-in-law says she takes great solace in the knowledge that she once served many a family Thanksgiving dinner on her turkey platter, and passed around pounds and pounds of boiled crawfish on the trays now consigned to a dump. We did manage to salvage a few pieces of her crystal from the wreckage, and these she passed out to her daughters-in-law, with a reminder to use and enjoy them. And we do. This Christmas I served guests on a delicately etched glass dish she had received as a wedding present more than sixty years ago. When I pass the platter down to my own daughter-in-law, I’m going to give her the same advice.

Freelance writer Judi Russell and her husband live in New Orleans. Her mother-in-law died three years ago, leaving her family many happy memories and a dynamite recipe for vegetable gumbo.