Lay That Burden Down


An icy wind blew outside the long black limousine. My husband, Horace, our two children, Horace's father, and I rode slowly from my in-laws' stately Colonial-style house in northwestern Washington, D.C., to an old redbrick chapel downtown. As we rode, I studied the back of my father-in-law's slightly graying head, wondering how it would feel to bury a mate you have loved for 50 years.

Mourners crowded the chapel. We took seats in front. I sat between Horace and my sad-eyed little girl, Mia. My left hand rested on Horace's thigh, and my right held Mia's soft, small hand. Her fingers folded inside mine like a rosebud.

When the service began, two ministers, in turn, spoke in the sonorous tones common to many African American preachers. Close friends and relatives also spoke, as did Horace. Their words accurately depicted Lula Cole-Dawson, my mother-in-law, as a strong-minded, good-humored, openhearted woman. Hearing the love in their voices, I knew that they spoke truly. This only deepened the sadness I felt for my loved ones—and for the fact that, despite having known my husband's mother for decades, I had never been close to her.

A diplomat's wife, she had been friendly to me while Horace and I were just dating. Yet once we were engaged, I was surprised by her disapproval of our marrying. "You two are too much alike," she had said to me. She meant, I supposed, that we lacked complementary strengths and would compound each other's weaknesses. But, rightly or wrongly, I came to feel that she really opposed our marriage because she and I were too different. She was a genteel, Southern-born, African American woman hoping (I believed) for a genteel African American daughter-in-law. Instead, she got me: a blunt New York Jew. When I broached this possibility, she dismissed it.

The awkwardness of our relationship tormented me in the early years of my marriage. But I eventually accepted that a loving relationship with her was not possible, much as I might have wanted it to be. At the funeral and afterward, though, a storm of unsettled emotions from those early years welled up. Horace spoke movingly of "Lula's girls," young women his mother had mentored worldwide—work for which she had been honored here and abroad. So many people cried. And I cried too, both for my loved ones, in their grief, and for disappointment over the bond she and I had never forged.

I focused on a phrase I'd learned: "This moment is as it is, and I can relax." Repeating this mantra and concentrating on my breathing helped me to remain calm, and to remember that my main purpose was to help Horace navigate his grief.

I also considered how much I owed to Horace's mother—her genes, her love, her teaching, and everything else about her I see reflected in him. His velvet skin, so like hers. His graciousness in all situations—ways learned from his parents. My in-laws' relationship had provided us with a joyful model of marriage unlike any I'd encountered before. Their mutual delight was such that either one could have written the song "I Get a Kick Out of You" to the other. They gently teased and gracefully adapted to each other as the branches of an old tree intertwine.

As light streamed through the stained-glass windows and I heard the stirring voices of the gospel choir, I felt the magnitude of this incredible woman's priceless gift to me. I realized that to fixate on what she had not given me would be to stubbornly harbor a pointless wish for perfection. For me, the time had finally come to let go of any yearnings or resentment, to make peace with the past, and to find peace of mind in the present.

Milly Dawson is a partner at Vinca Marketing and Communications in Maitland, Florida.