Mother-in-law," a pop song from 1961 performed by Ernie K. Doe, gives a harsh character profile of one member of most families. Do you remember this tune? I remember singing along to this number as I drove my ‘57 Chevy around town so many years ago.
I never gave Ernie K. Doe’s tune much thought until one day my girlfriend suggested that it was time that I travel from Bennington to Orwell for the weekend (gulp.). The purpose (you can’t fool me) was to develop a more personal relationship with her parents. I was apprehensive, to say the least, and Ernie’s tune rolled through my mind all the way to Orwell.
I changed my tune by the end of that weekend. Sharon’s Mom, Roberta, was a gracious and charming person. I knew Alden, the Dad, would require more "work." He played the conservative Republican and was unwilling to reveal the fact that he had a 50-gallon barrel of hard cider lurking somewhere in the cellar.
Today, I realize "mother-in-law" has such a negative connotation that I prefer (the French) "ma belle-mere’" when referring to my mother-in-law, Roberta Atwood. Belle-mere’ seems softer in tone and upon framing the words forms the beginning of a smile. See what I mean?
Roberta is a petite lady. Even in the high heels she wears every Sunday as she walks to church, she stands not much more than 5 feet. A casual observer would never guess she is 86. Roberta said: "I am no different from other farm wives or housewives that work and bring up their kids."
Truth be told, there is more here than meets the eye. In her community of Orwell she has served her church for years as: deacon, trustee, and search committee member and all-around volunteer. When there is a special event guess whose baked beans are always in demand? Cooking and baking for church functions is a fact of life for her.
An active member of the Fortnightly Club in Orwell, she has held all of the offices as well as supporting the club’s social functions (cooking, baking finding guest presenters). Sometimes when I have visited her on my way home from work her kitchen counters are filled with all kinds of baked goods for different organizations. Sometimes, I worry but there seems no stopping her or slowing her down.
She raised five children while maintaining a 25-year career in the Postal Service. The epitome of the Yankee work ethic, she has always been an independent and freethinking person. You haven’t seen conservative in action until you have met Roberta. She will offer you fresh vegetables from her garden or jam and jellies she made all while washing a plastic baggie for reuse. Perhaps you like a lovely parting gift of canned tomatoes or yummy pickles? Everything gets used nothing goes to waste. Work hard, go to church and do good deeds. It makes me dizzy.
Roberta’s pace has not really slowed since I met he so many years ago. In the community she is an active member of the Sixty-Plus Club, often participating in club sponsored functions and trips. She has served as library trustee as well as cemetery commissioner. You probably wonder if she is tied to the home and community with such a work ethic? I think not.
Roberta helped her husband Alden, aged 91, build their family camp on Lake Sunrise, a project that took a few years to complete. She loves to travel and attended several Postal Service and Shrine Conventions across the United States. My wife and I took ma belle-mere et mon beau-pere overseas on two different occasions, touring parts of Europe, and traveled together to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and Quebec a venture consuming more than one trip to the northern neighbors.
Another love of her life is family and dancing. Roberta and Alden have been dancing (Big Band style/ballroom dance) for many years. Sundays were reserved for family dinners and celebrations but Sunday nights were reserved for dancing at the Somewhere Restaurant in Fair Haven.
Age, it seems, has no boundaries as Dance Fever lives on. If you happened to attend the community dance at the Orwell Town Hall on the evening of Sept. 8, you would have had the opportunity to see them waltzing across the dance floor with a little foxtrot to boot.
Not bad for a lady who was rescued by canoe at the age of 18 months during the flood of ‘27. Not bad for a young lady who missed day after day of school because she suffered with scoliosis and, in spite of that challenge, graduated from her class as valedictorian.
She shared with me that: "Between high school and college I worked in a lumber mill where I ‘tailed the saw’." Then she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and confessed that she actually was a secretary at the mill and that she could never do a very difficult job like that, but she just liked saying that. Hmmmm, a comedian too.
Tom Pinsonneault can be reached at email@example.com. He grew up in Bennington and attended the former Bennington Catholic High School.