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THE KEY TO MY HEART.

Steve pays tribute to his mother-in-law in a column his high school friends never saw coming.


Gerry Bradford, circa 1961.
Gerry Bradford, circa 1961.

My mother-in-law, Gerry Bradford, died this morning at age 93; I just finished writing her obituary. I think I caught some of her essence, but the newspaper is not the format to talk about the complexities of relationships. And if any relationship deserves to be called complex, it is the bond we forge with the parents of our spouse. Like many sons and mothers-in-law, Gerry and I had a rocky start. Forty years later, I can say without reservation that I loved her. The long, slow reveal of who Gerry Bradford really was occurred mostly because the arrogance of youth kept me from understanding the value of other perspectives. Luckily for me, Gerry Bradford was full of surprises.

I stated dating M’Lissa in the fall of 1978, me a high school senior and she a junior. The Bradfords lived in my neighborhood (I had been the their paperboy in junior high school), attended the same schools and, to a demographer’s eye, we shared the same socioeconomic realities. But my home and the Bradford home were different planets orbiting the same solar system. In retrospect, the difference was almost purely a function of age. I was the first child of very young parents; M’Lissa the fourth child of an older couple. Essentially, our parents lived on opposite sides of the Elvis divide.

So while my parents had danced on bandstand, M’Lissa’s parents proclaimed that some guy named Bob Wills was still the king. Russell Bradford drove a truck, Bob Howen drove a convertible sports car. The Bradford children had only known Texas; I had lived in Florida, New York, Washington D.C. and overseas. Most importantly, my parents came of age in the optimism of the 1950s; Gerry and Russell would always carry the scars of the Great Depression. The Howen home seemed sunny; the Bradford home less so….


Baby M’Lissa and her sisters.
 Baby M’Lissa and her sisters.

….with one big caveat. Young M’Lissa Bradford-the object of my intense affection— was beautiful, funny and outgoing. The life of the party. M’Lissa’s three sisters were older and married or soon to be. When they were home though, they were much more like M’Lissa than Gerry. Rules were a pretty big deal at 3111 Satellite Lane. Somehow, without lecturing me or even talking about it, I gathered that dates with M’Lissa were to be conducted in accordance with some extremely specific mandates. Yet, Beverly, Lynda and Gayle abounded with stories where the rules had been treated more like loose guidelines.

I too wanted to live by loose guidelines. Thank God, M’Lissa felt the same way. So we expended quite a bit of emotional energy bemoaning Gerry’s antiquated version of appropriate dating relationships for high schoolers. (Side note: Mr. Bradford would no doubt have been the enforcer in the event of something serious and an effective one at that. Still, our relationship was smoother because: (1) guys can always talk sports and (2) he cagily let Gerry be the front line of the operation). I’ll blame my overheated teenage state for missing what should have been an obvious puzzle. How could have anyone so, let’s say “severe,” have produced four such high-spirited young women?

I survived a thousand small skirmishes with Gerry and on June 30, 1984, Russell Bradford and his wife “gave” their daughter to me in marriage. That weekend, however, was the scene of one of our more memorable disagreements. For the wedding, I showcased my cleverness and love of cinema by producing a treasure map of San Antonio with all the important locations designated by a movie title. So my parent’s home was Diner, the hotel housing the boys was Animal House and the Bradford residence was Romancing the Stone. Given that we were to be married at the Bradford’s old and oddly named church Baptist Temple, the sanctuary earned the designation Temple of Doom.

Gerry did not appreciate my cleverness. Viewed either as a comment on the sanctity of marriage or the role of the church, the map earned me no points. To this day, I can replay the actual conversation and my inner monologue. I’ll spare you the full story, but the “lighten up and have some fun” thought was definitely present. On my side.


Gerry’s beauty was undeniable.
Gerry’s beauty was undeniable.

If I only knew then what I know now. It turns out Gerry was not so severe at all; “lighten up and have some fun” basically described her coming of age. As a girl of 11 or 12, Gerry commandeered a school bus and drove it by herself, with her little sister in tow, to a family gathering she felt she should not miss, her parents’ desires notwithstanding. When the Athens High School Class of 1943 had its reunions, Russell Bradford was widely hailed for corralling the high-spirited beauty all the others could never quite catch. Before they were married and with Russell a sailor in World War II, Gerry traveled cross country by train to visit him in San Diego (appropriately chaperoned of course) back when 10 miles was considered a journey.


Gerry and Russell loved their Airstream only slightly less than their children.
Gerry and Russell loved their Airstream only slightly less than their children.

As I learned more, it gradually dawned on me that M’Lissa was not high-spirited and fun loving in spite of Gerry; instead M’Lissa’s zest for live and adventure was genetic. Gerry’s retirement years confirmed my hypothesis. I am convinced the Gerry and Russell waited long enough to ensure themselves their baby’s husband was capable of basic maintenance before embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. Today a couple who inhales America in a vintage Airsteam trailer, taking in all of the country’s charms and foibles, could easily be retro-hipster vloggers. Gerry and Russell were two decades ahead of the curve.

We have been going through the Bradfords’ slide collection, an exercise that reveals these two people knew how to relax and have fun. I can only pray for their energy and outlook when AARP becomes my primary tribal affiliation. So over the years, and in no small part because of the two grandchildren I had a hand in, Gerry and I forgot the skirmishes. Gerry was funny and whip smart. She had surprising views on life and love.


Gerry and Russell finally living the good life.
Gerry and Russell finally living the good life.

Still I wondered…why the severity when it so clearly did not fit her? The best I can make of it is that Gerry learned very early a lesson we no longer teach. Life cannot be taken for granted. Living through a time when many did not know where their next meal would come from, followed by years spent dreading the possibility that the love of your young life might find himself in harm’s way, makes a woman a bit fierce about protecting what she had. And what Gerry had was someone she loved every bit as much as I love M’Lissa and she held her four children as dearly as I hold Kelsey and Kendall. Her life was first and foremost about protecting those treasures; only when they were secure could she let her hair down.

Forty years ago, I did not think I had much to learn from Gerry Bradford. When M’Lissa called me with news of her passing this morning, I was both heartbroken and thankful for all that Gerry had taught me. In the end, Gerry did not care much for my map, but she helped explain where I could find and how I could keep my treasures. Also, I loved her because she named her dog Elvis.


Gerry seeing the sights.
Gerry seeing the sights.

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