"I don't have to sit around and stare at one more stupid Christmas tree," said Betty, my husband's mother. We had taken her to a little Russian restaurant in Studio City. Steel-blue eyes angry, she turned to me. "I'm warning you, if you put up a tree like that in my son's house, I'll never set foot in there again! Is that clear?"
Clear? What was clear to me was that she interfered with our life. She dragged her fingers across my table tops to check for dust, criticized my taste, put down my cooking and hated our cat. And now she was telling me how I should live!
My European upbringing stopped me from confronting her. We are supposed to give respect to the elderly, regardless of their behavior.
I turned to my husband and whispered:
"When I married you, I didn't know that I was marrying your mother, too! I can't take this anymore!"
From the early days of our marriage Betty was always outraged. Her only son had married out of the Jewish faith. "Would you believe, a shiksa! A goyishe kopf? Oi, oi, oi!"
At first I fought fire with fire, with biting remarks and sulking withdrawal. But my nastiness didn't feel good inside. It destroyed something in me. So I stopped.
Since I couldn't change this hostile an destructive little old lady, I decided I must learn to love her just as she was. With so much bitterness and hurt in my own heart, I knew this was going to be the greatest challenge of my life. Could love replace anger and resentment?
I began to ask questions from her past, her childhood.
"What is this? A trial? The Gestapo?"
But slowly she melted. I discovered the hidden source of her unhappy life.
Her childhood was bleak. Her mother died young and her stepmother was spiteful and neglectful. Critical relatives said: "What a shame her brother got all the good looks!" She married a taciturn man whose insularity increased her anger at the world. His death left her more hostile, more in need of controlling everyone, particularly her son. In restaurants she told him, "Don't smack your lips! Take your elbows off the table! Tuck your shirt inside your pants!"
Betty was a self-appointed policeman. She lost has last friend after pointing out loudly her failure to wash her hands before leaving the bathroom.
When I suggested timidly, "Have you ever thought of trying to accept people the way they are? Betty snapped back: "Are you telling me that I'm inadequate? I don't need a lesson at my age. Certainly not from you!"
Betty was invited to a wedding. "What a nerve!" she fumed. "They know perfectly well that my husband just died. Do they really expect me to go there and enjoy myself when I am still mourning! How can people be so insensitive?" A few weeks later was another wedding, to which she was not invited. "What a nerve!" Betty fumed. "After all I've done for them, they don't even send me an invitation!"
Betty always found a way to get hurt.
One day, as I passed by her door, on an impulse I left a rose with a note: "I love you." I signed it, "Your daughter." She rushed right over to our house. "What kind of sick joke is this?" She asked.
"It's not a joke, I really love you, Mommy".
It took her six more years to bring herself to say: "I love you, too." As sickness and age set in, she gave a hard time to the doctors and nurses. After all, she had to punish those who tried to help her. But one thing was sure: Whenever she opened her eyes, I was there.
Slowly, just as I had learned to love her, she learned to trust me. When at the end of a visit or a phone call I told her "I love you," her fading voice choked, "I love you, too."
For Jewish holidays I learned nostalgic ballads in Yiddish and sing-along happy tunes in Hebrew to sing for her with my guitar. Betty, despite trembling fingers and failing eyesight, surprised me with a dazzling set of beaded bells and candy canes at our last Christmas. She put the ornaments proudly on a tree just like the one that had offended her years ago. If it wasn't love, what do you call it?
When Betty's fragile life was fading, I sat on her hospital bed and felt her soft wrinkled hand reach for mine. "Good girl," she said. "Good daughter. I am so lucky!"
Choked up, I didn't need words to express my own thanks. She squeezed my hand as she finished teaching me the most powerful lesson of my life.
"See those proud Cedars of Lebanon outside my window? They are the symbol of my people's endurance. You know what's strange? Sometimes they smell just like your Christmas tree!"