Her anxious face appeared in the doorway and she thrust a half-gallon bottle of cranberry juice toward me.
I didn’t want the stupid juice.
“Thank you,” I answered weakly. I tucked the bottle under the passenger seat of the car and headed toward home — the tiny apartment where my husband was waiting for me.
My husband. As a young bride, it still felt strange to put those two words together. In fact, the newness of my marriage was the reason I had trouble accepting gifts of cranberry juice from the in-laws.
Even as I was learning how to be a wife, Dan’s mom was learning how to be the second woman in her son’s life. And like any good mother, she didn’t let go easily.
She still called to check on him, offered to do his laundry, and bought him all his favorite items at the grocery store. Which included, of course, the cranberry juice.
I was trying so hard to establish my own independence as a married woman that I resented my mother-in-law’s well-intentioned involvement. Young, stubborn, and defensive as I was, I saw an innocuous bottle of beverage as a threat to the autonomy of my marriage.
But I acquiesced. I brought the juice home to our apartment and placed it in the refrigerator where I resented its very presence.
I don’t remember if Dan drank the juice. I suppose he did. But I do remember thinking of the juice weeks later, after Dan’s mother suffered a debilitating stroke.
She would never buy cranberry juice again.
Though Dolores lived for two more years before finally succumbing to lung cancer, in the meantime she lost her memory and failed to recognize even her closest family members. My mother-in-law, a woman who had devoted her life to the care of her family, became unable to care for herself. She who had loved her own son so fiercely that she struggled with letting him go — she never knew that she became a Grandma.
In light of these events, resenting a bottle of cranberry juice seemed just a little bit silly. And selfish.
Although it’s been twelve years since we lost Dan’s mom, I still think of the cranberry juice on occasion. The most recent time was a couple of weeks ago.
Three-year-old Raphael has somehow come to misunderstand the purpose of saying grace. No matter how mightily we try, we fail to convince him that we say grace to bless our food and give thanks to God. He believes that grace is a magic formula we use to cool off foods that are too hot to eat.
And so it was at a recent lunchtime that Raphael insisted upon saying grace twice over his steaming bowl of macaroni and cheese. When we were through and he found that the food was still hot, he demanded that we say grace again. Having indulged him once, though, I was weary of the game.
“We’ve already said grace,” I told him. “Blow on your macaroni to cool it off.”
He threw himself onto the floor in a rage.
“Grace! Grace! Grace!” he shouted as furious fists beat the wooden floor.
This behavior surely did not warrant special favors. I was ready to scoop up his screaming body and deposit him in another room, when his older brother intervened.
“I’ll say grace again,” Eamon offered.
Raphael brushed himself off, returned to his chair, sniffed righteously in my direction, and said grace with his brother.
Witnessing this undeserved gift of grace, my mind filled with thoughts of cranberry juice and regret. As I listened to my boys’ voices repeat the familiar words, I thought that this is what grace is. Undeserved and yet freely given, it is goodness and generosity poured out on the poorest, weakest of souls.
I whispered a prayer for the soul of a generous woman who loved my husband and me in ways I was once too childish to appreciate and I thanked God for all of His gifts. Even the ones I don’t ask for, and especially the ones I don’t deserve.