AKRON, OH–They say the family that sits silently together stays silently together. And no one proves that old adage better than the Bladners. Whether enduring an uncomfortable outing at a local restaurant, attending an unpleasant community event, or simply staring blankly at the television, this tight-knit clan always makes an effort to spend plenty of awkward, silent quality time together.
"I read in Woman's Day how important it is for a family to spend time together," Joanne Bladner said Monday, her husband Larry and two teenage children slumped in their chairs at the dinner table. "In this day and age, so many families are hardly ever in the same room!"
"Well, I'm proud to say our little family is different," said Bladner, spooning beef stew onto the plates of her glassy-eyed loved ones.
Dinner at the Bladner residence is a special time: It's the one hour each day when Larry gets a chance to sit down with his wife and children and say nothing. As his loved ones rhythmically shovel food into their mouths, Larry reaches far across the table to grab the salt, straining to get it himself rather than ask son Marc to pass it to him.
After years of conditioning, daughter Michelle eats in near-silence, avoiding eye contact and answering questions with mumbled, monosyllabic answers whenever possible.
"Until I move out of the house, I have to do the whole family thing and eat dinner at the table," said Michelle, 16. "If I eat fast and don't say anything, I can usually get done in time to watch The Simpsons."
Noted psychologist Dr. Alvin Tanner, who has called the evening meal "the glue that holds the modern American family together," applauded the Bladners' commitment to closeness.
"Families need to spend time together daily," Tanner said. "That's the only way children will form lasting bonds and learn what to do when they're adults and have families of their own."
On the rare occasion that they do speak, Larry and Joanne try to make their time together as enjoyable as possible by avoiding any subjects they disagree about, including the next-door neighbors, Michelle's recent car accident, college savings, the boxes in the garage, and Joanne's mother's nursing home.
Joanne said she sees her family's tightness as part of a proud tradition.
"Larry's family was very close growing up," Bladner said. "He was raised on a farm, so they spent countless hours together out in the fields. Unfortunately, our family doesn't have any haying or corn-detasseling to do together, so we have to find other ways to stay close."
The four often spend hours after dinner watching television together.
"Marc wanted a TV set of his own, and I said, 'No way, buster,'" Larry said. "Then he'd be spending all of his time watching MTV in his bedroom, instead of sitting out in the living room watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire with us."
In addition to sharing many quality viewing hours, the Bladners occasionally leave the house together. Years ago, they went on frequent family walks, but when the children reached adolescence, they began resisting this activity for fear of being seen by their peers. Marc and Michelle's changing attitude and their parents' advancing age have forced the Bladners to rule out a number of activities, including miniature golf, badminton, and trips to the local waterpark.
"It's getting a little harder to think of something fun we can all do together, but we always do," Joanne said. "More often than not, we go to Southgate Mall together. We'll drive over there together and pick a time to meet up afterwards. The kids seem to like that the best."
Glaring icily at each other during a recent drive to Southgate, Marc and Michelle jump out of the family minivan the moment it pulls into a parking spot and head for opposite ends of the mall. When the two cross paths inside, they wordlessly pass each other without acknowledgement.
On the drive home from the mall, Larry reflected on his relationship with his children.
"I kind of miss the old days, when I was 'Daddy' to Marc and Michelle," Larry said. "They'd run up and sit on my lap, and I never got the feeling that they secretly hated me. But, goddamn it, I'm still their father, and as long as they live under my roof, we are going to be a seemingly happy family."