I was crazy about my mother-in-law Madeline, so much so that I did not find mother-in-law jokes funny, much as I like jokes. This brings me to a story I had written and shared with Madeline and other family members a few years before her death in 2006. Madeline and her three daughters loved it. In Madeline’s honor, here’s the story, but now written in the past tense after her passing.

Madeline’s Jumping Gene was roughly equivalent to a Mexican Jumping Bean. Madeline was my mother-in-law, and she lived in Chicago. Mexican jumping beans are not related to me, and they live in Mexico and in parts of the U. S. Southwest.

The reason I brought all this up is that I had to write this piece so maybe I could get this idea out of my mind. We have all heard that writing can be a form of therapy. In this case it worked for me!

First, to give some context for the story, let me share some information about Mexican jumping beans. A Mexican shrub in the spurge family, with the scientific descriptors, Euphorbiaceae—Sebastiana pavoniana, produces the beans.

Mexican jumping beans are well known for their rapid jumping movements, which are caused by little caterpillars that burrow inside the seeds of the plant. Individual caterpillars eat the inside of the seeds while leaving the seed coat intact. One theory about how the beans jump is that the caterpillar builds a web inside the seed wall, and jerks on the web with its body to scare away birds and other critters that disturb it. If you grasp a Mexican jumping bean in the palm of your hand, with a temperature of about 98.6 degrees (F.), the warmth will increase caterpillar activity and “jumping.” The caterpillars will continue this form of entertainment for several months if properly protected. Later on, the caterpillars form cocoons that transform into butterflies. The adult butterflies break open the seed covers and escape.

Next, let me give the reader a sense of this lady of whom I speak. Madeline was, at the time I wrote this, the very young-at-heart mother of my dear wife, Ellen, the eldest of her three daughters, her middle daughter Bobbie, and her youngest daughter Star (this name is not a typo).  Madeline was of course the grandmother of Star’s daughter, known in our household as Lady Katie.  Madeline was just under five feet tall, as cute as a button, as lean as a racehorse, and faster than Secretariat was at his peak.

Similar to the Mexican jumping bean, Madeline’s scientific descriptors were derived from the Sicilian family, Wondrousiaceae—Mama magnifico, specifically from the charming town of Milena on that beautiful islandShe brimmed over with affection, zeal, energy, intensity, radiance, and humor, all of which may be inferred from her scientific name.

Let’s get to the real point of the story. It grew out of Madeline’s behavior at family gatherings in her home. To begin with, she was a masterful wizard in the kitchen, preparing dazzling Italian or other dishes that suited her whim or family member requests. Over the years she developed a technique for serving that required guests to gather in the kitchen, pick up their plates, and fill them from the platters and bowls laid out on the island, counters, and range. This was a highly efficient system, with one exception.

Madeline was the exception. Invariably, everyone would take their filled plates and salad bowls to the dining table—everyone, that is, except Madeline. For some inexplicable reason, she vanished into thin air just as everyone was poised to pick up their forks and follow her lead. The reason this phenomenon made such an impression on me was that my parents taught my brother Nolen Robert and me not to even think about lifting a piece of silverware at someone else’s home until after the host or hostess did.

The consequence of all this was that while other family members asked, “Where’s Ma?” during her amazing vanishing acts at the start of meals, everyone but me started eating while I sat there waiting for Madeline to reappear and begin to eat so I could then start eating. I sat paralyzed and puzzled by Madeline’s whereabouts through this process literally scores of times.

But this was only one facet of a bigger mystery. Other Madeline disappearances were common. Family members could be in her living room, about to have a snack and drink, often with other guests, when in anyone’s mid-sentence Madeline just disappeared from her chair. For example, we could be all set with a bowl of nuts, a dish of cheese and crackers, a glass of wine, and a napkin, ready to partake. Then Madeline would say something like, “Would you like some olives?” and vanish without pausing for a response.

Or we would be sitting all together talking, watching TV, or playing cards. Then, just as if a magician had waved a magic wand, Madeline disappeared as silently as a cat and as fast as a bullet. These disappearances occurred so fast that we often spoke to her empty chair, before realizing that she invisibly transported herself out of the room.

Beyond her quick movements when I would be trying to eat something, watch something, say something, or play something at her home, less obvious “jumping” on her part seemed to go on throughout the day and into the evening. She was always the first to get up in the morning, usually around 5:30 to 6:00 a.m., she reported. She almost never sat still for more than a few minutes, unless she was working on a crossword puzzle. She did not take naps, ever. When she walked through the house, she lowered her head and shoulders, similar to an offensive football player trying to break through the defensive line. Everyone knew to stay out of her path for their own good.

It appeared that Madeline was possessed of some type of invisible caterpillar that tugged rapidly on some internal web, causing her to jump almost constantly during her waking hours. But all this, as amazing as it was, was only a part of the whole story. Her daughters—Ellen, Bobbie, and Star—are also possessed of the same internal caterpillars that cause all of them to jump almost constantly, too!

For the men in the family, all of whom were lazy and loved to goof off at the drop of a hat, this Madeline Jumping Gene phenomenon was unsettling. The old nature-nurture debate will never be resolved, but I at least have concluded that the problem is genetic:  Madeline and all three of her daughters would not be so tirelessly energetic without the passing of the Madeline Jumping Gene from mother to daughters.

Therefore, in an effort to understand one part of nature by trying to understand another, I will reiterate my initial proposition that Madeline’s Jumping Gene was no doubt akin to a Mexican Jumping Bean. She and her lovely daughters could be still if left alone in some part of the abode, but as soon as any one of them is in the presence of another person, another “heat source,” they begin this intense “jumping.”  They have such sweet and endearing energy, enthusiasm, and charm, that it’s okay when they break the sound barrier moving around the house.

Sometimes they inspire me to get up and do something—almost.