My husband grew up in the Midwest, Land of a Thousand Kindnesses, and came from a family who speak kindly of one another. The first time I met his parents and five siblings, I was shocked. They reminded me of The Waltons, the popular TV family of the 1970s. At family gatherings when my husband’s family told stories about one another, everyone minded everyone else’s feelings, so at the end of their stories, you expected everyone to stand up for a group hug and one more family photo.
My family grew up in Texas, sometimes, but we moved now and then just to see if growing up somewhere else would make us any different. It didn’t. We were the people from Peyton Place no matter where we lived. The soap opera known as Peyton Place first aired in the mid-1960s, shocking some and entertaining others with its stories of divorce, infidelity, imprisonment, and revenge. Just like my family, except that our show ran every day, while Peyton Place only ran two or three episodes a week. At our family gatherings when we told stories, no one worried about anyone’s feelings, we told the most embarrassing stories about each other that we could remember and ended up rolling on the floor hooting and hollering, and sometimes snorting through our noses because none of us could believe the dumb things the others were capable of.
In my family teasing has always been a sign of affection, and our favorite way of teasing is to tell on one another. When you are a child, telling on someone means you are tattling: trying to win the favor of whoever is in charge, either to look good or avoid punishment. Our grown-up tattling is after the fact and has no other purpose than to point out the obvious: we be dumb now and again. And the more we tell the stories on one another, the kindlier we feel toward one another.
So when my husband met my family, he was shocked. It didn’t dissuade him from marrying me, however, because I made sure we were already married before he met them. (Note to reader: Contrary to what my family says, I’m not as dumb as I look and sound.)
If, in the telling of a story about a sibling, we see signs of embarrassment or hear attempts to explain or justify, that story will become a signature story, one we will tell again and again, every chance we get. Because that’s what love does.
My mother never took part in any of this teasing. Of the four siblings I grew up with, only two of us shared the same father. The other two had their own fathers, yet we all share the same sense of humor. Maybe mother was merely the carrier of the slightly off-kilter humor that manifested itself in her children.
Of course everything I have written up until now is just an excuse to tell on the two siblings that I know are still alive. One of these posts I will explain more about my known and unknown siblings. But until then, here’s me showing some love to my brother and sister.
Until my brother came along ten years after me, I was the baby of the family. Mother indulged him not only because he was the youngest, but also because he was a boy, something I had been expected to be, but failed. When he was five years old, we lived in military housing in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. One day when he was shopping with mother at the commissary, he asked for some strawberry preserves. Mother tried to talk him out of it and told him he wouldn’t like it because it had chunks of fruit inside, but he insisted. The next day she put the preserves on his peanut butter sandwich, and after one bite, he knew mother was right: he didn’t like preserves. Mother insisted that he eat the sandwich, and then left him alone in the kitchen. He pulled the two pieces of bread apart, thinking he might be able to salvage the peanut butter side. It, too, was ruined. I’m sure that we had a garbage can in the kitchen, and I know that my brother had seen people throw things in the garbage, so it wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to dispose of the bread. He must have feared that mother would see the uneaten sandwich languishing in the trash, so he did what any reasonable person would do. He picked up the rug in front of the kitchen sink, placed one slice of the bread on the floor, and carefully covered it with the rug so that it was hidden. Then he took the other piece, opened the basement door, and flung it down the stairs. After all, who would think to look there? He doesn’t remember if mother found the first slice before or after she stepped on the rug; he can’t remember any consequences at all. Since he was the youngest, there probably weren’t consequences.
As a young girl and teenager, my sister suffered from Tourette’s of the Hair. Most nights she lathered her hair in Dippity-do, wrapped the strands in pink pokey, plastic rollers; large, bristly, netted curlers; or soft, spongy snap-ons in the belief that she could make her hair bend to her will. More often than not, it didn’t. Some nights the hair wriggled out of the curlers; other nights the curlers twisted the wrong way. When she commanded it to flip up, it flipped down. Or if she ordered it to swoosh that way, it drooped the other way. This made bad words come of her mouth. She developed two theories based on her hair. First, she believed the world had an interest in how her hair turned out each morning. Nice hair displeased the world; it was completely and utterly against her quest to be the best tressed at school, and, in fact, wanted her to go to school with failed hair. Second, she convinced herself that the answer to obedient hair resided in the bathroom counter. She hypothesized that by striking the counter hard enough and often enough with a comb, brush, or curling iron, her hair would suddenly flip or swoosh the right way. It took a number of years and a pile of broken hair appliances before she accepted the fact that the counter was merely an innocent bystander. She told me later with some regret that she passed this problem onto her daughter. She is still working on the problem of the world being against her.
In the interest of fairness, I should include a story about myself. Unfortunately, I have run out of space. Really. If I write any more I will bump into those little icons under this sentence.