Not all wives' tales are horror stories, relatively speaking

Sunday, June 27, 2004
Times Staff Writer,

New brides confront many challenges when they take a husband. Sharing a closet, for example. Maybe keeping house and cooking for two. Picking up his boxers. Dealing with pesky, persistent mildew.

Not the pernicious fungus that clings to a damp shower curtain, but the kind that clings to a son long after he moves out from under his mother's roof.

"MILDEW is an acronym for Mothers-In-Law Do Everything Wrong," Liz Bluper and Renee Plastique write in their new book by the same name. (Their noms de plume are parodies of their real names, to "protect the guilty.") The pair of college friends said they created the MILDEW concept out of necessity when they moved half a continent away from each other.

"It became a code word so that our husbands wouldn't know what we were talking about when on the phone sharing our mother-in-law 'challenges,' " said Bluper, a MILDEW-sufferer for 15 years who now lives in Greenwich, Conn.

Bluper and Plastique, a 13-year MILDEW veteran from Chicago, gleaned a collection of true-life blunders and foibles by meddling mothers-in-law from the Internet. There were so many, they decided they had found substantial fodder for entertaining and empathetic reading.

Sure, everyone has a few bumpy moments when they join a new family. But what is a MILDEW?

"The mother-in-law on 'Everybody Loves Raymond' is the perfect example of a pop culture MILDEW," Bluper said. Indeed, Marie Romano visits her son's house several times a day, lasagna in hand, to tut-tut about her daughter-in-law's housekeeping, child-rearing and husband's underfed frame.

Similarly, the book includes some shining MILDEW moments. Alanna's MILDEW plastered her fridge with contact paper. Heidi's MILDEW rearranged all the furniture in her house while she was on vacation.

Gift-giving is a particularly volatile arena. One woman gave her daughter-in-law a Thigh Master as a Christmas present. Veronica received a bag of 17 kinds of air fresheners from her MILDEW. Then there are the gifts of weight scales, frumpy peignoirs, a photo of MILDEW's dog in a baby's picture frame (a baby shower gift) and a full-length rabbit coat for the PETA member.

Malicious? Who knows. One thing's for sure, MILDEW "knows no social, political, economic or geographic boundaries," Bluper said.

In fact, there's MILDEW right here in Huntsville.

For example, one mother-in-law's concern for her unborn grandchild drove her to throw out every pair of her daughter-in-law's shoes while she was at the hospital giving birth.

"She said, 'Those shoes aren't safe for you to be carrying my grandson around on,' " lamented Ivy Green. (Name also changed to protect the guilty.)

"I had to go shopping for a new pair, wearing house slippers," Green said.

Is there any way to get rid of MILDEW legally? Psychologist Tom Sandy of Summit Psychotherapy in Huntsville believes there is, once the source of the problem is identified.

"It's well known that mothers don't want their kids to grow up," Sandy said, adding that moms tend to worry more about their children than fathers do.

"But they need to recognize children do grow up," he said. "We're only given children for a period of time."

The adult child needs to take the initiative to provide a different pattern of interaction, he said.

When MILDEW makes efforts to control the adult child by giving advice, for example, Sandy offers this mature solution: "You could get angry about it, or you can just say, 'Thanks for your advice. We'll consider that.' "

John LaFalce (his real name) of Huntsville deserves a MILDEW medal. He has endured not one, not two, but four mothers-in-law. Not because he's changed wives but because his father-in-law has.

"The first was from heaven," LaFalce said. "The next two were from Hades, and the current one is from purgatory."

When the first LaFalce child was born, MILDEW No. 1 sent her congratulations.

"You two can't help but be good parents," she wrote. "We have shown you everything not to do."

Despite the scary stories of mothers-in-law from the netherworld, many here have tales of praise for another sort of MILDEW -- Mothers-In-Law Do Everything Wonderfully.

Melba Clark was Traci Clark's wonderful MILDEW for just six years. Melba Clark was engaged in a battle, but not with her son's wife.

"She fought cancer tooth and nail so she could see her first grandbaby," Clark said. Melba died seven weeks after baby Jake was born. "She loved me for me and never tried to tell me I needed to become a certain person for her son."

Sue Zimmerman's daughter-in-law, attorney Kathleen Zimmerman of Meridianville, owes her MILDEW, big-time.

"Not very many women can say that their mother-in-law fixed them up," Kathleen said with a laugh.

Kathleen and Sue were co-workers in a small town in Illinois. Kathleen lamented the scarcity of good men to date, so Sue recommended her son Curt, who lived in Huntsville.

Kathleen and Curt finally met, a long-distance romance blossomed, and the two married in 1999.

"It's comforting to know that you have your mom-in-law's stamp of approval," Kathleen said.

Ilena Holder of Hollywood cherishes her MILDEW, Betty Holder.

Holder met her husband while both were on active military duty in Spain. She met her future mother-in-law via an overseas phone call.

"She called me 'honey' and 'sugar,' " Holder said. "You cannot imagine how special that made me feel."

Holder is proud of her wonderful MILDEW's talent and smarts, qualities she freely shares.

"She is full of money-saving tips; she has sewn clothes for me and my daughter," Holder said. "She knew every childhood disease and how to take care of it, saving me hundreds of dollars over the years in doctor bills by her simple recommendations."

Holder often visits her MILDEW and never leaves empty-handed, mostly taking home fresh garden vegetables or a Mason jar of homemade seafood gumbo.

"I brag to people at work about her; she deserves to be bragged about," Holder said. "She has been my mother-in-law for 30 years."

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