RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Some mothers-in-law defy the jokes

CHAMBERS COUNTY, Ala. – It ended for her here, on a brilliant spring day deep in the country, off an orange dirt road in a grave next to her husband's.

The woods had been pruned with heavy hand since last I made this trip, but the trees that survived were bursting to bloom, doing their best to console. Good country people were waiting to help bury her.

Lera Johnson, once my mother-in-law, took care of other people all of her life, including me.

She helped raise siblings after her mother died. As a young woman, she nursed her brother Victor, a newspaper editor who died a slow and torturous death. She conquered her fears and inexperience to ride the train with him to New Orleans for treatment.

Later, as a mature wife, she tenderly quieted the fretting, senile sorrows of her own mother-in-law. She never lost her patience.

Lera Johnson worked six days a week in a beauty shop, then volunteered on Sundays to fix hair for free in the nursing home. She didn't feel due an off day.

I never heard her complain, or saw her pat herself on the back. She accepted her lot, made the most of small pleasures, grew the world's prettiest tomatoes and saw the good in everyone.

She loved Glenn Miller music, caramel and chocolate candies, Atlanta Braves baseball, her two boys and anyone and everyone they loved. She never panicked over accidents or bloody knees or spilt milk. Her role was to console.

Lera taught me how to cook in a pressure cooker. She cooked almost everything in one, and the gentle hissing and rattling of her old pot became the sound of home.

If she knew we were coming, there were oatmeal cookies in a jar. If we surprised her, there were squash casseroles in the ancient chest freezer under the carport, or Brunswick stew deep in the refrigerator. She made plain fare taste better than any gourmet dish.

Her physical beauty was almost incidental, something you noticed first in her almond eyes. She had a kind of Claudette Colbert look, tailored and slim and unobtrusive.

She was tall and dignified in plain black pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt and practical shoes. In her seventh decade she could still bend from her tiny waist and touch the floor with her palms.

Once a year, at Christmas, I'd sit by her chair while she unwrapped dozens of small gifts from her beauty shop customers. She'd exclaim over each one, and I'd make a note on a yellow legal pad so that later Lera could write her thank-you notes. It was our holiday ritual.

She received useful things – salt and pepper shakers, Tupperware, money – and frivolous, pretty things. One lady always made her a seven-layer chocolate cake.

The important and telling thing about those little gifts was this: Lera always seemed genuinely amazed that the ladies whose heads she scrubbed and curled on a weekly basis, customers she kept for decades, would remember her at Christmas. She didn't expect anything, but was genuinely pleased and surprised at each remembrance.

Because of Lera Johnson, I never even understood mother-in-law jokes. She would have died rather than interfere or intrude; yet she was never far away if you wanted her around.

Once, after a failed and rather naive business venture, we ended up under her roof for a few weeks. I was distressed about it, worried sick about debts and dim prospects for future employment.

“You always have a home,” Lera said calmly. “And I'm in no hurry to see you leave.”

Until Alzheimer's stole her away, just being in her presence was a visceral comfort. You didn't need a therapist or a pill if you had Lera. You just needed to hear her soothing voice and its generous tone. She was so good you somehow felt capable of being better yourself.

Hers was a quiet but exceptional life, worthy of note and the praise she never heaped on herself. How lucky I was to know her.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson's regional mailing address is Rural Route 5, Iuka, MS. 38852.