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The berries have been there for months.  First hidden behind a flush of summer green, they began small green and hard.  But with leaves now gone, my Possumhaw Holly stands alone in silent splendor, within a winter garden gone dormant and brown.

With a male holly near by to play his role in creation, only females set fruit.  The birds love her bright red berries as much as me.  While I enjoy the mere sight of her from my kitchen window, I especially like to bring a few cuttings indoors.  The trimming improves her form while the trimmings form effortlessly into a nice table centerpiece —  like the one I put together Sunday with sprigs of French Lavender, in honor of my mother-in-law’s birthday supper.

The post could stop here but for that word, “mother-in-law,” which carries with it such common connotations.  Most are unflattering; and they hurt and belittle with a big bite.  I wish to remove its tarnish and soften the sharp edges with my own small words.  But try as I write, words evade.  I search for phrases and images to honor, to tell of the many ways my mother-in-law has enriched my life.  And I come up empty.

So I begin with a confession:  Janice and I have come a long way, since the first time we met thirty-eight years ago; because I’m positive she didn’t like me.  Or if not me in particular, then at least the general idea of her son dating anyone exclusively.  At seventeen, he was too young to narrow the field.  And when considering her son’s girlfriend as a prospective daughter-in-law, perhaps Janice felt her son could do better.  Having greater appreciation for her wisdom these days, I’m inclined to agree — though I’m very glad that son of hers  believes otherwise.  And she as well —  now that we know each other better.

Janice is infinitely interesting.  Unlike me, she can comfortably converse with anyone anywhere.  She is well-read and borrows many books each week from her local library.  She especially enjoys a good mystery.  She’s a fine cook, though she cooks less these days — nine years of living with cancer and chemotherapy cocktails takes its toll — though she lives everyday grateful.

Her grandmother raised Janice because her mother wasn’t up to the task.  As a new widow with two toddlers at home, having lost her husband in a tragic train accident, Janice’s mother knew her  limits.  So Janice grew up calling her grandmother “Mother,”  and her mother she called “Mammy”, same as all her mother’s grandchildren.

Janice married young.  Ironically, at sixteen.  But thanks to her Mother, she married for love.  Because her Mother wanted for Janice what she herself had been denied, when forced to marry a man she did not love.

When time drew near for delivery of my oldest son, Janice put aside her fear of flying and came to Texas to help out.   But it’s not the help I’m remembering today but all our good visits.  During one lovely afternoon chat, in my final days of that third pregnancy, Janice fondly recounted how she had “a thing” for a man in uniform when young.  I suppose her future husband looked fine in his crisp Marine khakis, walking down the streets of the small town where Janice lived.  It wasn’t long before they married.  Then not much longer before Janice and a new daughter were on their way to France.  And a year or so later and a very long way from home, with no family nearby save for her young husband, Janice gave birth to her second child: My husband.

To this day, Janice cannot resist the hard crusty french bread she came to love as a young French housewife.   Enough so, that I created her birthday menu around loaves of  hard crusty bread, ensuring I acquired the finest Oklahoma City offers.  With them, I served a side of my best spaghetti and meatballs.  And a fresh tossed salad and home-made vinaigrette and croutons — made  with french bread, of course.  And because I make pies and cobblers better than cakes, Janice had birthday candles planted into a big dish of apple cobbler.

But as I look back on Sunday night’s supper table, it’s not the food or the beloved people seated there which grab at my attention but that lovely mix of winter flora:  Those silvery sprigs of French Lavender which I have adored for so long — whose scent fills my home and my soap dispensers and lingers above my pillow at night — reminds me of Janice and the gift of a French-born husband whose love we share; and those spacious berries remind me of Janice too, since she always has space and time to visit.

These wintertime berries invite me to make my own space — for visits with those I love —  with time ripe for picking.