08/17/2011 12:50 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2011

A Non-Feminist Role Model

My husband's parents were born shortly after the turn of the 19th century and lived well into their nineties. His Dutch father was a kind, pragmatic, small town Iowa physician, and his mother a fiery Irishwoman. The rich collection of family photos revealed my husband's grandfather to be a terrifying man with gold loop earrings on both ears who allegedly came to the United States a Dutch outcast due to his religious fanaticism. My favorite was a beautiful 8x10 image of my mother-in-law as a freshman sorority girl. She later dropped out of college to help the family pay for her brothers' college education and never went back. She was a searingly intelligent woman with vast potential.

The first time I visited their home as a young wife, I was already something of an outcast myself because my husband and I lived together for four years before we married, thereby causing my mother-in-law to ignore our wedding. She had a way of looking straight down her nose in disapproval that destroyed whatever self-esteem I managed to muster for those visits. My husband inherited that strange ability and to this day, uses that downward look on me when he wants to express his own disapproval without getting into it, a perfect combination of his parents. At my first family dinner, always on the table promptly at 6 pm, I made the mistake of taking seconds and not cleaning my plate. Later I overheard my mother-in-law bitterly complaining in the kitchen about it, as though leaving food on my plate was a crime.

The beautiful sprawling brick home on the corner with the white wooden shoe on the mailbox looked over an apple orchard and, further towards the horizon, acres of corn. It was my mother-in-law's base of operation and she was in charge. Her decisions were never questioned openly, but sometimes talked about quietly behind her back. She decided whether she wanted help doing the dishes after dinner or if you were dismissed to enjoy yourself and go sit on the porch to watch the fireflies come out, providing jars so the kids could catch them. She determined when and how the leftovers were to be eaten, always reminding everyone of what was available until it was gone. She loved her hometown and she loved Iowa, the breadbasket of civilization she used to say.

My husband's parents rarely traveled and it was generally known in the family that visits took place at their house so it was up to each family member to make the time to "come home." As much as she enjoyed those visits, my mother-in-law never pressured anyone, just waited patiently. She adored her grandchildren and they loved spending time in Iowa, just as my husband loved for them to experience what he considered his ideal mid-20th century American upbringing. Those times enriched my children's lives in countless ways and quietly influenced their understanding of who they were.

Modern life pretty much passed my husband's parents by as life in small town Iowa changed very slowly over time. His mother acted appropriately interested in her grandsons' cell phones and video games but mostly dismissed them as unnecessary and silly. The landline in their home was used to alert the doctor if there was an emergency with one of his patients or to confirm a planned golf game and I never heard one of the conversations take more than a minute. To this day, my husband literally cannot engage over the phone, detests his Blackberry, and prefers to stay home while I do the traveling on my own. The only place he ever wanted to go was home to Iowa when his parents were alive.

When I was diagnosed with cancer at age 42, my relationship with my mother-in-law changed dramatically. She no longer looked down her nose at me, which seemed to have become mostly a hollow habit as the years passed, but instead folded me into that wonderful place of kind, unconditional love that my children had always enjoyed from her. Our new relationship flooded me with joy and in her later years, I wrote long letters delivered by US Mail filled with the trivia of our every day lives. She raved about those letters and how much she enjoyed receiving them and I enjoyed visualizing her daily, hopeful walk to the mailbox. This shift in her attitude towards me was one of the finest blessings of my cancer experience, and there were many.

It is good to think about my Irish mother-in-law this week as we reflect on the women's movement and the PBS Gloria Steinem documentary debuts. She would roll over in her grave if she saw her name in the same sentence as Gloria's but, to me, my mother-in-law is a glorious example of the sacrifices women made for their families and the commitment to family as the most important thing. I built the family business while my sons were growing up and my husband gave up the practice of law to stay home with them. That wasn't exactly how his mother saw him using his law school education but he hated the practice of law anyway so it wasn't that much of a sacrifice. He gained a profound respect for his mother as he raised our boys and even though they weren't raised in Iowa, my mother-in-law's influence was felt in his parenting.

We are the last generation to be raised primarily by the traditional family model. And I, for one, am grateful and proud to be a member of that generation. My acknowledgement of the women's movement this week is to remember my mother-in-law and her influence. She didn't believe she had choices like we do today but she put her head down and did what was expected of her without complaining. And her son, my husband, is a genuine reflection of that. And I like to think our sons are, too. For me personally, it is a powerful legacy.