Most people who know me know something of my relationship with Thelma Bridges, Cheryl’s mother. I must say Thelma has been a great source of happiness. I am happy when I tell humorous stories and Thelma has provided me with a host of them. She is the quintessential mother-in-law and the perfect foil.
The first time I met Thelma was Thanksgiving, 1973. Cheryl and I had just started dating and her parents came to Lee for a visit. Standing on the sidewalk in front of Cross Hall, Cheryl introduced me to them. But I can’t say I met Thelma at that time. Cheryl said “Mom, Dad this is my friend, Jackie.”
Thelma mumbled “Hello” as she was in motion to turn her back to me and walk away, leaving no opportunity for me to respond. My first true exchange with her came the next spring when Cheryl and I were getting serious. I took her home for the weekend so that I could meet her family. It was a Friday evening and already dark when we arrived. Cheryl jumped out of the Pinto and ran into the house. I got the suitcases out and proceeded to the front porch where I could see Thelma sitting on a glider/rocker in the dim light. I started lowering the cases to greet her properly when she spoke her first real words to me, “Sonny boy, your hair is too long.”
Before the bags could touch down on the cement floor, I stood upright and responded, “Sister Girl, yours is too short.” I turned and walked into the house. Thus began a lifetime of give and take with Thelma Bridges.
Thelma is a force to be reckoned with. She overwhelms most people. Few can be as charming and bombastic in the same minute as she often is. I have witnessed her being cruel in an effort to prove her point and get her way. I see her as a person who failed to develop the ability to see the world through anyone else’s eyes but her own.
I instinctively knew from that first night that if I was going to fair well in a relationship with Thelma I had to keep my integrity and be respectful while not allowing her to run over me. Honestly, I have truly enjoyed that challenge much, if not most, of the time. I have felt that she and I developed our own détente of mutual respect based on unspoken assurances of mutual annihilation. The irresistible force and the immovable object met and both survived if only in an alternative universe that allowed each to believe their own victory was intact.
I have grieved and been angry because of the verbal pain I have seen her inflict, the kind of pain that is woven into the spirits of children for the rest of their lives. And yet I marvel at the good that has been born through her life. Because of her I have learned I am not as good a person as I sometimes delude myself into thinking. She has offered me multiple opportunities to wrestle with my theology. Concepts about God and truth forged in the challenges and conflicts of human relationships serve as better anchors than those produced in the leisure of philosophical speculation, at least for those who desire to know God truly.
The last time I visited Thelma at her home before she entered long-term care as a result of vascular dementia, the struggle was still there. I was in the living room when she barked out an order for me to go outside and take care of something for her. I got up, walked into the kitchen where she stood, put my arm around her and said, “Thelma, you’ve known me long enough to know you can’t boss me around. Ask me and I’ll do anything I can for you. But don’t tell me what to do.”
She looked up at me with a puzzled look of frustration, paused, and then chuckled. “All right then, will you go outside and …” I did as she wished.
I am Thankful for Thelma. Without her there would be no Cheryl. Without her I would have dozens fewer stories to tell. Without her I would think myself more sanctified than I am. Without her my faith would be less tested and less certain. She has been a blessing to my life.
March 10, 2010