Even for those of us who believe, it's always sad to have a loved one die on or near Christmas.

On December 19, 1989, "Gram" finally succumbed to cancer in Tacoma, Washington. My mother-in-law, Edith Dougherty, was strong to the last. We had pleaded with her to come East to live with us, but she firmly refused. She was born in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and resolved to die there.

Our relationship--Edith's and mine--had not always been easy. We got off to a rocky start. A month after my wife and I married, Edith and I quarreled, at Christmas. We didn't speak. A month later, we didn't see.

When Edith would come to visit our new home on the Kitsap Peninsula, I would make a point of taking the ferry to Seattle. I would spend the day at University of Washington's Suzzallo Library. I was a Ph.D. student there.

Seven months into our estrangement, I began to be lonely at Suzzallo--and hungry. So I called my Russian teacher, Nina Konstantinovna. Nina is a Mother Russia and I was sure she would be good company over lunch.

After soup, Nina asked "How is married life?"

Oh, it's great, I said. I love being married to my dear Kate. She's done wonderful things with the new house.

"And how is it with Kate's family?"

Oh, very good. I really get along well with my brother-in-law.

"And your mother-in-law?"

Uh, well she's visiting Kate in the new house right now.

Nina didn't have to be a KGB interrogator to see what this was about.

"And you're not there? What's wrong?"

Quickly, seven months of wounded feelings poured out.

Feeling I was the one wronged, I expected Nina to be on my side, seempahteechnuh.

Not at all.

"You must luff your mother-in-law," Nina Konstantinovna said in a her heavily accented voice that brooked no contradiction.

Love her? I don't want to be in the same room with her!

Nina, unsmiling, gave me my orders:

"You are Christian, are you not? You love Kate, do you not? You haff duty to luff mother-in-law. Now go home and luff her."

So I did. Edith and I reconciled that day. And I learned that Nina was right. Edith had many good qualities, even if appreciating my unique gifts was not one of them. But she seemed to warm to me, especially after I named our first born after her beloved late husband.

When we got word Gram had passed away, my wife made the difficult decision to have a memorial service immediately. She was concerned that Edith's many friends wouldn't get word, so close to Christmas. Cold and overcast as the day of the graveside memorial service was, the cemetery seating area was packed.

The largest wreath was placed by Wolfgang, owner of the Tacoma German shop Gram loved. Her first husband had been killed by the Germans in World War II, but great was her quality of forgiveness. She even forgave me.

We flew home to Maryland with our son and daughter that Christmas Eve. The pilot joked about racing against certain reindeer.

Kate was then assigned to the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland. No time to worry about Christmas dinner, she had had a million details to organize for the memorial service. It's OK, Kate said. We can eat dinner at the naval hospital tomorrow. Our young son and daughter won't mind, she assured me.

But when we got home, we found the refrigerator packed with an entire Christmas dinner. Kate's hospital food service staff had filled it for us. To this day, the sweet sad Christmas of 1989 is the one our children say they remember best.