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My Adventures With Nettie: In Defense of the Mother-In-Law

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Popular culture regards the mother-in-law as, above all, a big fat joke. Like the one about how the main reason Adam and Eve got along so well is that neither had one. Or how the definition of mixed emotion is watching your mother-in-law back off a cliff in your new Mercedes. Jokes about the mother-in-law, particularly in New York, practically rank as a national pastime.

Beyond the easy punch lines, the mother-in-law is often an object of scorn and derision. She's the most vilified family member in human history, the original woman of ill repute. Petty tyrant, castrating witch, monster-in-law -- pick your favorite pejorative. The term is practically a dirty word.

In the 1960s, as I came of age, Borscht Belt comedians riffed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" about the mother-in-law. Jackie Gleason, as Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners," bellowed about his blabbermouth mother-in-law. Jokes about the mother-in-law practically ranked as a national pastime, right below hating Communists. The term made for the perfect punch line.

Behind the easy punch lines about the mother-in-law, though, is evidently a real problem.Websites and blogs are dedicated to sharing horror stories about her. A husband and wife, suffering a double case of bad mother-in-law experiences, started a website, motherinlawstories.com, to grant others a public forum for venting frustrations.

In 2006, a woman in England whose mother-in-law constantly bullied her -- banning her from leaving the house unaccompanied, for example -- sued her successfully. One man in France, so fed up with his mother-in-law, decided that rather than try to kill her with kindness, he would simply kill her. He stabbed her with a knife, claiming she had called him a loser and humiliated him.

Indeed, Italy's Institute of Statistics found that the more physical distance between a married couple and a mother-in-law, the longer the marriage lasted.

Except that none of that turned out even remotely to be true for my own mother-in-law, Antoinette Chirichella of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, whom everyone knew as Nettie.

All my life I'd heard the rumors, the warnings, and now expected the worst. I would never be smart enough, good-looking enough or earn enough money to meet Nettie's standards for a son-in-law. She was going to drop into our home unannounced, step directly between me and her daughter and end all radio contact. She would then start right in giving unsolicited, highly unwelcome advice about how I should raise my children, handle my clients and, as long as she was at it, realign my investment portfolio.

I considered myself doomed. Nettie would now watch my every move, taking the measure of my manhood, absolute in the certainty that sooner or later I would mess up, the only question being how badly. If I needed to know what to think about anything, she'd be quick to tell me. If I were to collect a nickel for every compliment she paid me, I might eventually have a dime.

Nettie never pulled any of the stunts often attributed to mothers-in-law. Never tried to tell us how to live our lives, never questioned my bad decisions (and I had a pretty good streak going for awhile there) or faulted me for losing a job.

Rather, she took two buses to show up at our apartment at eight in the morning five days a week for years to take care of our son and daughter as my wife and I went to our jobs. She assumed this role even though she had just retired from 47 years hunched over a sewing machine in a factory, a career started when she dropped out of eighth grade at age 14 to help support her family of six, and now suffered from crippling arthritis. What little money she had -- she lived on a pittance of a pension and Social Security -- she spent on our kids.

And believe me, that's just the half of it.

It's a mistake, of course, to extrapolate from a single example. But it's unlikely I'm alone in this respect. So maybe on this Mother's Day we should acknowledge that the mother-in-law has gotten a bum rap. Maybe she's maligned because she's so widely misunderstood, a handy scapegoat for any marital difficulty, the so-called victimizer herself winding up victimized. Maybe we should finally give the old gal her due.

Nettie is gone almost 15 years now. We keep the cane she used to hobble along leaning against a dresser in our living room, a symbol of all the support she gave us. Sometimes I hear her in my dreams, telling us, as she always would, that everything is going to be all right.

Take it from me. My mother-in-law was no joke.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist, has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

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