Before I met the man who would become my husband, I worried. First, I worried if I would ever meet him at all. Then I worried if he would take my career seriously—I am a writer, and I know from experience that it is one thing for someone to say they support and value your work, and quite another for someone to actually stand by you, quiet and staunch comfort through the years of rejection and uncertainty, without ever so much as implying that maybe you should get “a real job.”
Finally, I worried about his mother.
I do possess qualities that mothers tend to appreciate. I am calm, steady, a good listener, a practical dresser. I am relatively tidy, do not drink or smoke, and love to bake. However, I am also an artist—and more than one mother of a previous boyfriend has treated this aspect of my life with palpable condescension, or at the very least a complete lack of understanding. The mother of the man before the man I married—the mother of the man I almost married—had wrinkled her nose in confusion every time my writing came up in conversation, and talked with pointed admiration about all the young women she knew who were making “good, honest money” in traditional office careers, with paid vacation time and Monday-Friday workweeks. When I received a prestigious writing fellowship to move to California and work on a book, it came as no surprise that she didn’t see why I would ever take it—and, it quickly became apparent, neither did her son. When we broke up, I vowed to myself that I would not settle for anything less than a partner who truly appreciated and valued my writing career. However, it seemed like too much to hope for a mother-in-law who would do the same.
I met Allyn, the man who became my husband, on a rainy February night at an ice cream shop, when no one in her right mind would be craving ice cream, but I didn’t care. It felt like something out of a movie: the fogged-up windows, the cozy warmth of our conversation, the ice cream melting in our small paper cups as we talked and talked. It was immediately obvious how close Allyn is to his family—as I am to my family—a trait I very much admire. But it made me even more nervous to meet his mother.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before Allyn invited me to lunch with his mom, Barbara. We picked her up at her house—a gorgeous, stately home on a shady tree-lined street. Barbara came out to the patio to greet us, a lovely woman with a genuine smile and a warm hug. I loved her instantly.
“I’m so happy to meet you!” she exclaimed. “Allyn’s told me so much about you. I hear you are… a writer?”
And there it was: out in the open.
“Yes, I am,” I said hesitantly, trying to gauge her expression. “I moved here for a writing fellowship, actually. I’m working on a novel.”
“A novel? Oh, how amazing! I would love to read it sometime.”
I realized a curious thing about Barbara that day, and in the days and weeks to come. She was not showing interest in my writing to be polite, or to make conversation. She was being sincere.
“I’m not a writer myself,” Barbara confessed to me later that first afternoon, as we drank iced tea and flipped through an album of Allyn’s baby photos. “But I have always loved to read, and I just admire writers so much. The way you are able to weave magic out of words.”
With every photo Barbara turned to, she had a new story to share—detailed, funny, intricate. She made me feel like I was part of the events she described. And I suddenly realized why I felt such an immediate connection with her: while she may not call herself a writer, she is surely a master storyteller.
For her birthday that year, Barbara insisted there was only one thing she wanted from me: a manuscript copy of my novel, newly finished. Nervous but excited that she wanted to read it, I printed out all 300 pages and spiral-bound it into a book. When Barbara unwrapped the gift, she began to weep. Tears sprung to my own eyes. Never before had someone treated my work with such reverent joy.
As the months passed, my life began to indelibly shift—from first-person point-of-view, me and I and my, to first-person-plural point-of-view, we and our and us. Stories have always been a great love of my life. The other great love of my life is Allyn. These are two of Barbara’s great loves, as well.
Like my own parents and brother, who have always been my biggest fans, Barbara reads everything I publish—stories, essays, book reviews, blog posts. She curates a growing stack of books and literary journals and spiral-bound manuscripts I have given her, which she shows off to guests as her “Dallas Shrine.” Any time I try to thank her for believing in me and showering me with so much support, she shakes her head like I’m being ridiculous. “Honey, writing is your gift. It’s what you were born to do. No belief necessary—it’s a fact!”
Her words buoy me up and keep me going. When I receive yet another rejection letter from a publisher, when I face the blank page of writer’s block, when yet another promising market or contest yields only disappointment, and it feels like I might never reach that place I am so diligently and earnestly striving for—I think of Barbara, my new mother-in-law, waving her pom-poms for me proudly from the reader’s chair. I think of Barbara, and I feel a little more sure of myself, a little more hopeful, and a lot more loved, than I did before she came into my life.
Originally published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever
Dallas Woodburn, a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Zyzzyva, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, and Modern Loss, among many others. A passionate champion of writers of all ages, she is a popular writing coach and the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers young people through writing (www.writeonbooks.org). She blogs frequently about life, love, and creativity at http://daybydaymasterpiece.com.