Dowry. Way back when, it could mean the difference between marrying for love or marrying for those 10 acres of land you and your serfs could till. It is what is brought to the proverbial table when it came to exchanging a hand in marriage. In our culture today, the need for a significant dowry is relatively unimportant and not typically a part of the engagement (although it might have made going along to pick out flowers for our wedding a little more bearable had I picked up an ox and some squares of land for marrying my wife).
Today, dowry is less about new ownership of goods and commodities and more about who you gain with marriage, specifically, in-laws. Your love will move you to saying ‘I do’ (love can make you do crazy things) and two will become one plus a few more. You’ve married the love of your life and accepted them in to your life for better or worse and in doing so; you have accepted their family in too, for better or worse.
Like most everyone wearing a wedding ring at this moment, I had heard the stories of mother-in-law’s from the 6th Ring of Hell sent to Earth to apparently destroy whomever their sons or daughters agreed to marry. I heard tales spun in the lunch room at work, at the bar, and walking out to my mailbox, told with extravagant arm gestures and some tears in the eyes. Tales like ancient mythology about mother-in-laws battling their kids’ spouses like gladiators battling a fire-breathing Chimera. I had been made aware of the possible dangers my mother-in-law would pose once her daughter and I crossed the threshold, like I had been in a scared straight program in high school.
Once we were married, I had a list of options in front of me for which to address my new mother-in-law. There a multitude of different names and reasons for the names we assign to our in-laws (personal experience will dictate what you call them to their face and when they aren’t listening). Now, I’m nothing if not something of a traditionalist which meant I immediately began calling my mother-in-law ‘Mom’. It was a slightly awkward transition from when my wife and I were dating. The awkwardness came from handing out such a sacred name as ‘Mom’ to someone who not long before that I had referred to as Mrs. P. It was a little like calling your Algebra teacher Mrs. Smith on a Friday and on Monday calling her Mom. But Mrs. P was easy to talk to, typically had a smile on her face, had a pleasant disposition, and was always nice to me despite my “look” at that particular moment in time (I was in college. I was a cross between a pirate and a roadie for a grunge band).
So thirteen years ago, when my wife and I were married, I was fully prepared to go with just ‘Mom’ but somewhat frightened at the notion of my in-law dowry. My fears of having a mother-in-law however, were thankfully just that, fears. Fear of the unknown, fear of the stories I had been told, fear of three headed fire-breathing monsters from antiquity. What I found out is I had nothing to fear from my mother-in-law.
The sweet and kind woman whom I first met didn’t change. I could go on with the most glowing adjectives the English language has to offer when describing someone as I talk about my mother-in-law: loving, unobtrusive, protective, wise, and just like a Mom should be. There has been no ‘in-law’s’ quarters built on to my house. Her opinion has always been shared only when it was asked for, she has never treated me any different from her own kids, and she keeps inviting us over for Sunday dinner. She has been there when we need her (whether it was planned or in an emergency). She has gone out of her way for her daughter, our kids, and for me (so much so she takes my side in arguments with my wife which is like having Margaret Thatcher as an anchor on your college debate team).
I suppose I lucked out with my dowry. I didn’t get farmland or livestock when I got married. Territorial boundaries weren’t redrawn and the survival of a royal name never was a part of my nuptials. My dowry included a beautiful ceremony, a reception with an open bar, and a mother-in-law. But if you are fortunate enough to know her or be her son-in-law, you would know why to me, she’s just Mom.