by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
August 17, 2008
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Unconditional love is rare, but I was lucky enough to find it in - of all places - my mother-in-law. With your permission, I'd like to tell you something about her and why I loved her so much.
Norma Jean Holhut, whom everyone called Jean, died early Sunday morning at the age of 72. I am married to her youngest son, Randy, who is a columnist for this site and an editor and editorial writer for our local paper.
When she was younger, Jean was a firecracker - red-haired, wisecracking and feisty.
"In her prime, she had arms like a longshoreman and a vocabulary to match," Randy said. "She could swear impressively and creatively. She certainly didn't sound like any other mother I knew."
Jean spent a lot of her time, as her five kids liked to say, "bitching and moaning." But the real message was that they were unconditionally loved and accepted. And when her children had children, she loved them just as much. It never ceased to amaze me that even after they were grown up, her two beautiful granddaughters liked to settle on her lap to whisper and laugh. And her tall and handsome young grandson did the same.
Jean came from a family of 10 children (and one bathroom, I'm told). She liked the hubbub of a family around her. Randy tells stories of her jumping on the boys' beds in the morning to wake them up for school, and how she chased them through the house with a broom handle when they were bad.
But there was never any question about her loving them.
"It was there," Randy said. "It was newer spoken. It was just there, like air. We didn't have to work for it or cultivate it. It was just there."
It was just there, like Paul Simon sings: "My mama loves me, she loves me/She gets down on her knees and hugs me/She loves me like a rock/She rocks me like the rock of ages/And she loves me/She loves me, loves me, loves me, loves me."
Randy gave that unconditional love to me.
I met Jean for the first time 18 years ago, when Randy took me home for Christmas Eve. I was nervous about meeting his family, and my first words to Jean were, "I need a drink." She didn't bat an eyelash. She just opened up the cabinet under the sink and passed me a bottle of rye. Later, when the golden-haired granddaughters handed out the presents, there was one with my name on it. I fell in love with her there and then.
Jean didn't have an easy life. Once the kids were all old enough to be in school, she started working as a cook at the local schools.
"Every day, when I went through the line, she'd be dishing the food into our trays," Randy said. "Legend has it that the school superintendent treated the pantry of the school lunch program as his personal supermarket. My mother got fed up with it after a while. He made one demand too many and she took a handful of keys, chucked it at his head, and said, 'I quit.' She went to work as the cook and dietitian at the infirmary at the University of Massachusetts."
Some people criticize Randy for his unabashedly liberal views, but if you look behind his editorials you will find his mother.
"Even with a Harvard degree on the wall, I'm still the child of working-class parents," Randy said. "I watched them struggle. My mother was someone who had an unshakable work ethic. She worked hard all her life, and her story is the story of every person who has to work for a living and doesn't always get respected for what they do. That's the world I grew up in. That's where I come from when I write."
Jean's husband died young, and she never remarried. She kept on working.
"She put a lot of hard miles on that body of hers," Randy said.
After she retired - with health benefits, thanks to her union - her sister, Pat Fair, came to live with her. The pair found seasonal work to help pay the bills and spent their leisure time playing the slots at Foxwoods or sitting at home in a pair of loungers, bitching and moaning, cracking jokes and watching the home shopping networks.
"The door to the house was open and she was always there," Randy said. "It's the epitome of Robert Frost's line, 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.'"
The Sunday before she died of cancer, she was still at home, drifting in and out of consciousness. Randy and I were on duty that night, and we were joking with her as we lifted her into bed. I was surprised to see laughter bubble up in her from what seemed like a very pure place, and her face was filled with childlike innocence and wonder.
I woke up Saturday night at 1:30 a.m. with her drawn and dying face in front of me. Restless and frightened, I tossed and turned. Then, around 2:30, the image faded, and I was again seeing her childlike wonder. I fell asleep easily. I'm not one for easy comfort and spirituality, but I find it odd that she died at just that time.
My cousin Joan, who is a nurse, said, "It is very possible that Jean died and came to give you some peace. You saw her transition into the next life. She is OK. This may sound like nonsense to you but you know that I believe in an afterlife and the immortality of the soul. I have seen it too often to doubt it."
Jean must have been busy that night, with so many mournful family members to visit.
Randy says his mother died "in a haze of morphine and love." I will always be grateful to her for letting me into her life and giving me her son. I will always love her.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.