On how to make a difference

My mother in law came to Switzerland for five weeks. When I mentioned it to friends, it was met with a look of horror and a whispered “How is THAT going?”. I understand theoretically why they responded this way, but I happen to be one of those lucky girls who married into a fantastically weird and wonderful family.

I won’t go into the details of our five weeks together. Suffice it to say we shopped and talked and she washed the dishes every night. When I arrived at the airport to pick her up, a man walked through the arrivals exit and approached me, asking if I was Kimberly. I answered in the affirmative, and he told me  to sit tight, my mother in law would be along shortly. Sure enough, a few minutes later, she appeared with a smile and two overweight suitcases. She asked if I met her new friend, Michael. I assumed Michael was the guy who approached me, and she said yes, he was her seat mate and they spent the eight hour in flight trading stories.

My mother in law has the uncanny ability to make a friend out of anyone and everyone. Complete strangers meet her and tell her their secrets. I don’t know how many times she’s been told by someone she’s just met “I never told anyone this, but…” It’s bizarre. She makes an impression, my mother in law. Sunday, the six of us flew back to the US for summer break. My husband and I were the recipients of a bottle of champagne because my MIL made friends with the flight attendant. The flight attendant asked me to hide it from the other passengers in economy, so we covertly toasted Mom for the next four hours.

She and I sit at polar opposites on the scale of personality types. If you met her, you wouldn’t forget the experience. If you met me, you probably would. I’m okay with this. She’ll share with you her deepest feelings on grief in the first five minutes of making your acquaintance. I save most of my words for this space, after thinking on them for a good, long while. I used to worry about being invisible, of feeling small in a room of bigger personalities, but I’ve grown into my smallness. I’d rather take an impression than leave one.

My mother in law manages both. She leaves a bit of herself with others, while managing to take away a piece of others as well. In watching her, I’m reminded of the importance of leaving something behind. It doesn’t have to be much. People don’t need to remember my blonde hair or my mad stories or my sparkling wit, they only need to remember I listened with an open heart and a forgiving ear. On the flight home, an attendant told my husband and I about her son, the autistic one. The one she remembers when she sees the blue puzzle piece pin on her lapel. She told us she wants to retire, to be home with her kids, all five of them. We didn’t offer her advice or similar stories. We offered her quiet nods and murmured assent. We offered her a moment in time where she felt heard and seen and understood. We left her with something I hope made more than an impression. I hope it made a difference.