I’m probably breaking some unwritten man-rule by writing this.
I’m supposed to poke fun at my mother-in-law. But, I consider this, crafted as Mother’s Day approaches, a tribute to Kay Bladel.
I met her one sunny day outside the big, busy house where she raised her eight children, six of them boys. I was dating her oldest girl Lynn, and had come to pick her up. We had met and become close in college but I had not met mom yet.
Kay looked shocked when I drove up. Stupid me, I had not considered the potential effect of my mode of transportation in this part of Pittsburgh. I grew up in a poorer part of town, where plastic and duct tape instead of a window wasn’t that uncommon.
Kay looked horrified. And she didn’t hide her feelings.
“You’re not going in that,” she announced to Lynn, as I pushed aside the plastic and crawled out the driver’s side passenger window. Lynn had warned me to try not to engage mom too much, so I just stood there, until my eventual-wife-to-be spoke up.
“It’s fine. It’s just the window and a little bit of the door. A lady ran a red light and hit him the other day,” Lynn said.
Kay shrieked her rebuttal: “But look at it!”
I was trying to get Lynn’s attention to hurry her into getting her bags.
But we weren’t going anywhere yet. Kay inspected that car like an NFL agent investigating a first-round draft pick. She even called Lynn’s dad Lou out to look at it. He just laughed and stayed on his porch. His oldest daughter — he called her his “Princess” — kissed him goodbye.
Kay turned that inspector’s eye toward me, actually walking around me in a circle, asking about my beat-up shorts, my unkempt curly hair, my weight.
“You are skinny.” “Don’t you need a haircut?”
She knew she only had a few minutes and did her best to ensure her daughter wasn’t leaving town with a serial killer.
If I remember correctly, Lynn interrupted her mom as Kay asked where we were going to church on Sunday.
“C’mon mum. We gotta go,” Lynn said, tossing her bags in the car.
I thought of crawling back through the window but decided I better slide in through the passenger seat before Lynn got in. Kay grimaced as she walked up to the broken window but she leaned in close to me anyway.
I wish I could remember her exact words. For a great number of years they were etched in my mind like an epitaph. The exact quote eventually faded after I earned Kay’s trust — I swear that took about a decade after Lynn and I were married.
That day, closing out our inaugural meeting, she whispered something that made it very clear that she disagreed with premarital sex, and that it could be dangerous for anyone going out with her daughter to have a different opinion. She explained in terse, street language about my genitalia not necessarily remaining connected to the rest of my body.
It was just a summer family gathering at the home of one of Lynn’s relatives. So, dress was casual.
I didn’t have a lot of nice clothes so I decided to wear one of my newest T-shirts. My mom said the blue background complimented my eyes.
That was lost on Lynn’s mom. She didn’ts see the background. She saw the silhouette and shouted: “He’s wearing a naked lady on his shirt!”
It was actually only an outline of the body of an American icon, Marilyn Monroe. One of my sisters had gotten it for me. No one else had thought it obscene.
By the time that party was over, Kay had everyone at the party convinced that it was.
I was pretty skinny back then and bought my shorts from the thrift store. They didn’t always fit well.
Now, I’m certainly not saying I started the fad that became so popular with teenage black kids, but I did walk around for years with sagging shorts.
So, eventually, Kay discovered I didn’t often wear underwear. She grilled me about that — in public, no less — so often that I had to buy more.
I was getting better at dealing with Kay. I was blushing less. I even fired back on occasion.
On this particular fall afternoon, I didn’t even flinch when she casually announced to the crowd on Lynn’s front porch that I probably wasn’t wearing underwear. But, in assessing my sagging shorts, she noticed something else — the round bulge in my back pocket. She asked loudly:
“Dave, when did you start to chew?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, until I reached into my back pocket. Then, I not only turned beet red, I stood there mute, frozen, searching for a plausible lie.
I simply could not tell the truth about this one.
Kay asked again as I stammered, speechless, trying to find Lynn to bail me out. Everyone stared at me.
To understand, we need to back up a little.
You men out there probably remember a time in your lives when you were younger and more lusty — when you would do just about anything to ensure your girlfriend stayed in the right mood. To ensure your … well … needs were taken care of. To keep from running into traffic like a rutting deer.
This porch scene happened when I was in my early 20s. Back then, when it came to certain situations, I did whatever my beautiful girlfriend told me to do, without a whisper of complaint.
This included, on this particular day, letting her slip something into my back pocket that should have been carried more discretely. In her purse. Inside a shirt pocket in a backpack. Anywhere but where it was.
But, no, my lovely, shapely girlfriend wanted me to carry it. I think she was sending a message. Like, “I have to worry about this thing all the time, so you can be responsible for it for once.”
She hadn’t counted on her mom’s eagle eye.
Kay thought the bulge meant I had a new vice. She didn’t realize her daughter and I were practicing a very old one.
Back on the porch, Kay expected I would simply pull out a tin of tobacco. She pressed onward. She wasn’t going to let this go.
This was so traumatizing I have blocked out specifically what happened next.
I know it went something like this. Lynn, finally out the front door and to the rescue, goes on the offensive.
“Let him alone, mum. It’s just candy you goofballs. It’s mine. I didn’t want him to let you guys see it.” she says.
“Why?” Kay asked.
“Because you pigs would eat it all,” Lynn said. Those brothers — did I mention there are six of them? — knew they couldn’t argue with that.
I finally breathed again, as I stuffed the object deeper in the pocket above my right glute and fled to the car. Driving away, I handed Lynn’s diaphragm back to her and asked her, nicely, to hide it in one of the bags.
Right about now, you might be thinking this doesn’t sound like a mother-in-law tribute, as promised at the outset. Think again.
Kay’s motherly instincts were right on target.
She thought I was sneaky, and I was.
I had to be, growing up where I did. She helped keep me on the straight and narrow, at least when it came to her daughter.
And she did it with unflagging resolve.
I saw over the years that I wasn’t the only target, either.
She cared enough about all her kids to challenge those who would enter the Bladel inner circle. Dinner at Kay’s house always included an abundant array of tasty stuff but also an inquisition.
If the newest invitee was amorous with a Bladel offspring, watch out.
Of course, none of them showed up in a half-crashed car, or looking like a reject from a homeless shelter.
So, I believe I was honored with the most extensive Kay cross-examination on record. Seemed like a grueling gauntlet at the time but it helped me earn her friendship. And once you got past the interrogation, she loved you and protected you like one of her own.
That paid off big-time. Help with our five babies. Help with money. Help making vacations happen.
She even became my best audience, laughing at all my jokes.
As a bonus, every time she came to visit our home, everything in the ironing basket ended up pressed and hung in the closet before she left, even after arthritis had curled her fingers and stiffened her ankles.
Kay has passed now, but her legacy lives on.
The surviving kids continue to grill newcomers to the family, sometimes with aggressive candor that rivals their mom’s. I have to admit I have joined in on occasion, too.
No questions about underwear or pocket bulges, though. I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone, unless he or she reminds me of me.
Then, of course, all bets are off.