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How a purse snatcher and potato salad help my grief

How a purse snatcher and potato salad help my grief

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SALT LAKE CITY — My favorite story about my mother-in-law took place during a family day trip to Tijuana when my husband Jeff was a teenager.

Among other purchases, his mom haggled with a merchant and paid next to nothing for a leather purse. Jeff's family was in their truck at the end of the day when a merchant approached Jeff’s mom, addressing her through an open window. His animated sales pitch — meant to distract her from seeing him reach in to grab her new purse — didn’t quite work. What happened next is the stuff legends are made of.

First, Jeff’s mom bested the guy in a tug-of-war that ensued after he grabbed her purse. And then, with a formidable right hook that her kids had never before seen, she whacked him square in the face. Stunned at the unexpected and humiliating turn of events, the would-be purse snatcher turned tail and ran.

I never met the heroine of this tale, because she died of bone cancer before I met Jeff. So I know her only through stories. When I joined the family, it struck me that the memories Jeff and his family shared about his mom were almost exclusively upbeat and funny. Some were even poignant, but hardly ever sad. And during the telling, the laughter would always far outnumber the tears — at a ratio of about one hundred to one.

My grief is new, so my current ratio of laughter to tears is the opposite of Jeff's family ratio. I know that my grief will at times be public, at other times be private, and will always be unpredictable. But I also know that it won't always be what it is now.

Jeff’s mom was gone, but her memories were still helping his family smile.

I understood and appreciated the positive approach they took when remembering their mom. But I didn't get why they were so rarely sad. Didn’t they miss her terribly? Where was the heartbreak when she wasn’t around for birthdays, for holidays, for ordinary days?

It wasn’t until a Mother’s Day 13 years into our marriage that I had a partial answer. Since my husband was participating in our church services that Sunday, he sat on the stand facing the congregation. The service included a beautiful song honoring mothers. Moved by the music, I glanced Jeff and was shocked. We had been married for 13 years, but it was the first time I had ever seen him sob.

It turns out that I had made a false assumption. I had only seen Jeff get misty-eyed when remembering his mom, so I had always assumed that the uncontrolled crying stage of his grief had occurred before I met him.

But I was wrong.

Jeff had grieved in many other ways, but on that Mother’s Day 15 years after her passing, he had truly sobbed for the first time.

I realized then that the only thing I truly understood about grief is that it's unpredictable.

In knowing Jeff’s family, I was able to experience grief from an outsider’s perspective. As of 19 days ago, when my dad passed away from lung cancer, I’m officially an insider.


The day my dad passed away, my family all cried buckets of tears. Sometimes my siblings and my mom and I would cry together, other times we would find a quiet corner to mourn privately.

But our crying needed respite. At one point, a few of us gathered in the kitchen to try and eat something, which reminded us of one of our favorite Dad stories.

The tale is one of a slight miscalculation Dad made during a dinner social. It was held in a yard with a pool that had been covered by a tarp for the off-season. Dad, distracted by the plate of food he was carrying while navigating his way across the yard, somehow forgot about the pool (or at least where it was located).

In one misstep, Dad and his whole plate of food tumbled onto — and then all over — the tarp. Dignity is difficult to maintain while bouncing around a pool tarp covered in potato salad.

One of my brothers mentioned Dad sprawled on the tarp, wearing his food, and we burst out laughing. We knew that if Dad were with us, he would be laughing the loudest. We weren’t done crying for the day, but we needed to laugh.

My grief is new, so my current ratio of laughter to tears is the opposite of Jeff’s family ratio. I know that my grief will at times be public, at other times be private, and will always be unpredictable. But I also know that it won’t always be what it is now. Because, like Jeff’s mom, my Dad led a life that left us with awesome stories — upbeat, funny and poignant. And in the telling of those stories, we will gradually start laughing a little more and crying a little less.

Just yesterday, a gentleman walked into the waiting room where I was sitting. He reminded me of my dad. Without warning, I started to cry. But even through the tears, I thought about Dad, the tarp and the potato salad. And I managed to smile.

Thanks for the memories, Dad. They're still helping us smile. Susie Boyce is a mom, writer and public speaker. Her column, "Momsensical," is featured in North Dallas-area newspapers and posts bimonthly on Visit her website at or like her Facebook page, Writer Susie Boyce.

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