This “Music In My Head” column is going to be a little different, but it’s a reflection of what’s been in my head lately…and there’s music, so here goes:

Let me tell you about my mother-in-law.

That song was obviously written by someone who had no appreciation for his mother-in-law, maybe with good reason. 

Sometimes mothers-in-law get joked about…and that plays right into the old stereotype, that they’re just plain evil, with no good intentions toward their sons-in-law.  That may be true for some, but let me tell you about mine.

I loved Sue as much as I loved my own mother, and she was an amazing woman.  She passed away a few days ago, and the world won’t be the same without her.  Anne Beverly Allen Wooten Harkins Montague outlived three husbands, and that’s how she got that long name.  I only knew two of them, since Bev’s dad passed away when she was only eighteen. 

Anne Beverly Allen Wooten Harkins Montague was always called “Sue” by her family and friends.  The story goes that her father really wanted to name her Suzzanne, and he lost the argument, but that didn’t stop him from calling her that anyway.  The new name caught on, and eventually, was shortened to Sue.  Sue had three brothers, and it was that way for them, too.  The oldest was Thomas Coley, but he was called Bill.  Next came Ben Lacy, and most people called him Mac.  Sue’s surviving brother is Cary Durfey, but what do we call him?  Maxie.  Apparently, Sue’s dad lost a lot of arguments, but managed to get the final word.  Bev tells me it’s just one of those Southern family things, but I’m from the South, too, and I’ve never seen a family like this one.

She may have been known to most as Sue, but I called her Mama.  We all did.  Mama did not like me one bit when I first got together with her daughter.  She just assumed that since I was one of those “disc jockeys” I was up to no good.  Even at our wedding, she still had not really warmed up to me.  She didn’t even bother to get her hair done, and if you knew Sue, you know she always had to have her hair done for special occasions.  Our ceremony was held outside, in the garden of a church here in Chapel Hill, and it was a beautiful, sunny, fall day, but she insisted on keeping her coat on, and wouldn’t even put down her pocketbook for the wedding pictures.  Her daughter was somewhat concerned about her disdain for me at that point, but I told her not to worry — that I would eventually win her over.  It wasn’t long before Mama came around.  As time went on, Bev even told me several times she thought her mom loved me more than her…that wasn’t true, of course, but I do know she came to love me like a son, and I loved her like a mom.

She was a remarkable woman. Strong-willed, independent, and fearless.  She never hesitated to stand up for herself or for the ones she loved.  She was the go-to person, the backbone of the family, the one who always kept things together, and she always made sure everybody had what they needed.  Her daughter –my wife– inherited those endearing traits, and while that can be extremely aggravating at times for a husband who sometimes tends to let things slide…I do find it an admirable quality, and I know it came directly from Mama.

When Sue was 80 years old, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  She had a head tumor.  And it was pretty serious. Even the doctors didn’t hold out much hope for survival.  While many people at that age might have simply given up, she said she would overcome it.  She went through chemo and radiation, and a myriad of other medical trials and tribulations, and miraculously, she beat it.  There were physical consequences, of course, but she managed to endure, and enjoyed many more Thanksgivings, Christmases, and birthdays. 

Sue lived to see her grandson, Zac, graduate from college, and her granddaughter, Cam, get through three years of college (so far) and she didn’t miss a thing.  Bev and I would love to take full credit for bring up these two amazing young adults, we both realize  that Mama’s strong influence on them helped mold them into the wonderful, caring, level-headed, and loving people they are today.  She was always right there in the middle of everything. 

No matter what, she kept doing the daily crossword puzzle, cryptoquote, and word jumble, without missing a beat.  Usually, she had her trusty, black-and-white cat, Tom-Tom, by her side.  The cool thing is that even as her body failed her, her mind remained sharp as a tack to the very end.  And I’m happy to say we were all right there with her when she passed away, at the age of ninety-two.  She was old and frail, and most of all, just tired.  We thought she would give up the fight sooner, but she stubbornly held on, until Zac could get here from Oregon.  She just had to see him one last time.  By the time he arrived, she couldn’t communicate with him verbally, but she knew he was there.  We all assured her that everything would be okay, that we would take care of each other, and Cam promised to take care of Tom-Tom.  Only a few hours later, she quietly slipped away in the middle of the night.

I will always remember the ritual Mama and I had.  As I was lifting her out of her wheel chair, I would count “One, Two, Three,” to let her know when I was pulling her up. And she started counting with me, but added her own unique twist to it.  The saying soon became, “One, Two, Three…Billy caught a flea.  Flea died, Billy cried.  One, Two, Three.”  She had other little pearls of wisdom liked that, but that little ditty will stick with me from now on.

Mama had a positive impact on everybody she met.  Many of her friends and family are no longer with us.  She outlived husbands, and everyone, it seems.  Anne Beverly Allen Wooten Harkins Montague, you had a profound effect on my life, too, and I loved you even if you didn’t get your hair done, and even if you were holding your pocketbook in the pictures  So Sue, rest in peace.  We will miss you, Mama.

Mama was a charter member of St. Paul’s Christian Church in Raleigh.  She was very involved in the church for many years, and it was always near and dear to her heart.  And I can tell you there are some really wonderful people there — they’ve provided a lot of love and support for all of us.  For those who would like to honor my mother-in-law, contributions may be made to the church at 3331 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, NC 27612, or to Wake County Hospice, 250 Hospice Circle, Raleigh, NC 27607