In this first week of 2006 most of us are excited about the
prospects of what lies ahead, how our lives will be improved,
or perhaps impacted by those around us, new and old friends,
new and old enemies, the leaders, the clueless, the wannabees,
the incompetents, et al.
For me, this year has started off terribly with the sudden
death of my Mother-in-Law right after Christmas. One of the
oldest myths that we deal with in life is that Mothers-in-Law
are bad, mean-spirited, out to get the men who married their
overly-protected and most- favored daughter, who are gold
diggers, etc., etc., etc. Not in my life. My wife's Mom, Mary
Zunich, was as close to being a Saint as my late Sainted Mother
Blanca. To have been a part of the lives of these two women
is to have been blessed beyond belief.
I often share these personal experiences with you because
I feel they reflect a view of life that journalists should
consider when they write or report about everyday life and
this is certainly one of those moments as we enter the New
Who needs New Years' resolutions for future success when
you have had the benefit of sage advice from someone as highly
accomplished in life and as wonderful as Mother Mary, or simply
"Ma" as I called her?
I often hear politicians and community leaders talk about
the need for mentors in our society, business leaders or actors
or sports stars who are seen as having a special ability to
give great advice on life for young and old to follow in order
to make it in this world. I used to believe some of that until
I met Mary.
She'd had a few of her own tough bumps in life, but as I
got to know her lovely daughter, I could see that she had
been mentored by a very special woman. Not only did Mary teach
her the basics of life and of being a good person, but she
taught my wife about so many things that are more important
and substantive than just cooking, sewing, working, gardening,
Mary taught all four of her daughters to be strong, independent,
responsible, wise, assertive, unafraid, focused, family-oriented,
nurturing, involved in the world around them, and to be loving,
decent, nice human beings. These traits all landed squarely
on the girls, but I am convinced that since my wife was the
first-born, and went through the training over and over again
with her younger sisters, she got an overdose of being a great
person and learned the most.
Yet, after we met, fell in love, and got married (it was
the second time around for each of us), we went though the
same adjustments and problems that all newlyweds experience.
Each of us had two children from our previous marriages and
merging the two families was not without its challenges.
And when I felt I just didn't understand my new wife and
what in the heck was going on with her, I was pleasantly surprised
- no, shocked - that I was able to express my frustrations
to my Mother-in- Law who took a genuine interest in my concerns
about her daughter. Mary offered advice, a little bit of history
about my wife's first marriage, helped me better understand
my new wife's frustrations, as well as her aspirations, in
ways that my wife was still trying to learn how to communicate
Mary was never judgmental about her daughter or me. She sought
to provide help, not criticism, to nurture, not nag, and to
bolster my desire to be a better husband, not to belittle
me for failing to fully understand what her daughter was about.
When friends of mine or co-workers would complain about their
nosey, domineering, controlling Mothers-in-Law, I would just
chuckle or smile with a surprised grin. They would seek my
support of their plight and I would back away, saying, "I've
got the greatest Mother in Law in the world" and you
could see they thought I'd gone insane.
Mary, mother of four daughters, took me in and treated me
as her only Son. Only my real birth Mother ever called me
Son in a way that had the kind of feeling and substance that
Mary conveyed. It was more than just a way to address me;
it was her way of saying I was worthy of her love, almost
as much as her daughter, my wife, was worthy of her love.
Our marriage brought four kids into this new blended family
and Mary didn't miss a beat. She treated my two boys as if
they were related to her by blood. It must run in her family
genes because my wife also treated my Sons the same way she
treated her own Son and Daughter, and in many ways, it created
a bond with my now-grown Sons that is closer and stronger
than with their own birth mother.
When we were out in public, people would sometimes think
my boys were really my wife's Sons because the chemistry was
so good, so natural, so easy and normal. I quickly learned
it was an extension of how my Ma, my in-law Ma, had passed
on her special gift to her next generation.
Mary worked for many years in the Baldwin Park School District
in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, and
I hope all those who passed before her realize what a tremendous
opportunity they had to learn about the really good parts
of life from her.
We hear a lot about problem children today, bad schools,
bad teachers, gang violence, and babies having babies, lack
of respect for parents, lack of attention to kids, and the
need for parents to take more responsibility for their kids,
and so on. Mary was the epitome of a mentor who didn't seek
the role and who never used it for her own gains, but was
a shining example of a woman who gave of herself.
She was a natural. She had the look that would catch your
attention when your mind was headed down the wrong road. She
didn't hesitate to interrupt an off-color joke when the timing
was inappropriate or the audience at hand was not suitable
for such material. She had her own sing-song way of dong the
right thing at the right time in the right place and providing
guidance without appearing over-bearing or controlling.
Mary spent Christmas in the hospital, preparing to leave
her earthly bounds after years of fighting the after-effects
of smoking for too many years. I find it ironic that her generation,
often referred to as "the greatest generation" for
its heroism in World War II, its leadership over communism,
and its old style "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father
Knows Best" family values, was also the biggest sucker
to the tobacco industry's sales pitch to the poison of cigarettes.
Next time you're working on a story, don't go straight to
the athletes, movie stars, or politicians for an outlook on
life. Seek out the quiet people in the school district offices,
behind the counter at the library, or walking out of a Moravian
church on Sunday. Look for the ones who have that quiet quality
of peace and strength under their smile, the ones who can
be in a conversation with an adult one moment and then smoothly
reach out to a child and provide direction and attention with
Try to find the people who live to love the world and the
people around them, not for a political agenda or personal
gain, nor for money or fame, but because they want to leave
this world a better place than how they found it.
Mary Zunich did that for a lot of people and after 24 years
of being married to her eldest and most wonderful and beautiful
daughter, I start out this new year rather sad, but secure
in the hope that others like her will carry on. I am also
secure in the knowledge that I share my life with one of Mary's
greatest pupils and best ambassadors of love and life, a fantastic
mother to my Daughter and step-mother to my Sons, who gives
me the hope and the strength that will make 2006 our best