Show, Don't Tell

Family gatherings seem to be equally about memories, eating, and building current relationships. My husband’s family gathered recently where my sister-in-law put on a spread that would have made our mother-in-law proud. One of the nieces brought up the eulogy I wrote and read at my mother-in-law’s funeral. Mama Butler, as she was known to family, lived by the writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” without having heard it. My eulogy went like this:

Mama Butler knew how to say, “I love you,” in a way that involved no words. Her sons and grandchildren heard and understood.
    She grew up in a silent generation that seldom spoke about feelings. Instead, she demonstrated. Her sons tasted her love daily as they grew up and again when they returned as adults.
    I married her youngest son and tried to improve her habits. When the family was coming for dinner, there would be fried chicken, ham, pot roast, purple-hull peas, butter beans, creamed corn (sliced thinly three times and scrapped off the cob), potato salad, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top from an unwritten recipe only she could duplicate, macaroni and cheese, Jell-O salad, rolls, cornbread, and at least two kinds of cake and always her chocolate pie which has never been reproduced.
    I tried to convince her that nobody could eat all that at one sitting. It was only necessary, I said, to fix one well-balanced meal with one kind of meat or main dish, a couple of vegetables, a salad, one bread, and a dessert. I suggested she’d enjoy her company more if she were not so tired. None of this was heeded.
    Noticing that her grandson Lance scraped the meringue off his pie and left the crust, I suggested that she make some chocolate pudding and save herself some trouble. “Lance likes chocolate pie,” she said.
    When I tried to improve her habits, she countered with the name of a son or grandchild who would surely starve if a particular favorite wasn’t on the table. I hadn’t seen the message in the food.
     I appealed to her fatigue, which would prevent her entering the lively discussions that followed the meal. She said, “I just enjoy listening and seeing people enjoy what I have cooked.” Finally, I gave up out of frustration, seeing that it was useless. I remained convinced that I was right. I have no idea why I thought I would make any changes in her behavior when the other three daughters-in-law had been unable to.
    Eventually, we moved and were the ones returning for the special occasions. I don’t remember when I realized that I, too, had succumbed to anticipating her meals. We’d arrive at the front door. Even before she answered our knock, I could see her coming out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, not a silver hair out of place in spite of the heat of the kitchen. The aroma preceded her. The mixture included my own favorites: purple-hull peas, creamed corn, fried chicken, and cornbread. I began to hear what she was saying in the kitchen.
    With the dinner on the table, she gave warnings about which things weren’t quite right this time.
    “The meringue didn’t rise quite high enough.”
    “These store eggs are not as good as when I used to have my own chickens.”
    “The corn is not as good as last year. I think the weather’s been too dry.”
    “The icing on the cake didn’t harden right. I think I should have cooked it a little longer.”
    We never found these flaws.
    I began to see her pleasure in watching her family enjoy the after dinner talking and teasing, punctuated with return trips to the kitchen for another piece of fried chicken, another glass of boiled custard, or another sliver of cake. A final round brought enough nourishment for the trip home.
    Mama Butler finally learned to say the words, “I love you,” – from her grandchildren, I think. But those who loved her still heard them best around her table.