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Rule # 3: Friends Before Family

Rule # 3: Friends Before Family

This rule has been a particularly difficult one for me. Both as victim and perpetrator. I am hopeful that having outed this rule, I am well on my way to being a better mother, wife, and friend…

When my father passed away from cancer in 1990, a swarm of people came to his funeral. Of particular note was a passel of tearful young men whom he had taken under his wing in recent years and mentored on the job. It had been his pattern throughout his career to guide the young professionals whose interests he shared and in whom he saw promise or an earnest sincerity. In addition to the grief which accompanied my loss, I felt both pride and sorrow at the best parts of my father so generously bestowed on others.

Our yard was somewhat of an eyesore. My father enjoyed organic gardening when it suited his whim but he was never big on shrub trimming, tree pruning, dandelion removal or other basics of suburban yard care. He was largely spared the censure of our neighbors, however. Though eccentric, he was in many ways generous. Much to the chagrin of my mother, who was periodically found lopping limbs high in the boughs of the fruit trees, on her knees doing surgery on the dogwoods or muscling the push mower over our uneven yard; my father spent his spare time having fun.

My Dad spent his evenings and weekends building enormous Heathkit televisions in the family room downstairs. Dad insisted on commandeering muffin tins and other containers to hold the tiny electronic parts, and he was loath to relinquish them no matter the inconvenience to others. Touching his stuff was punishable, and it was difficult to avoid.

The smell of solder is forever in my nostrils. I can still see the hard, colorful plastic blobs with the little wires sticking out of them. Some of their coverings were slightly chewy. Diodes? Cathodes? Oh, what were they called?! I’m sorry, Dad, I did not inherit your gift for technology, and blobs are blobs. Yes, of course I played with them when you were at work. And it’s a wonder I can write at all given my amusement with the properties of lead solder.

My Dad might have looked like a real martyr if you didn’t know better. His labor could have been a noble or even sacrificial undertaking if it had been part his effort to keep food on the table or save for our college tuition. But in my house, nobody was fooled. We all knew he was having a grand time. He relished tinkering alone after a long day at work. He built the TVs for free and then gave them to our neighbors for the cost of the kit alone. I am not joking. He didn’t clean up after himself either.

My Dad was amazing, really. What he lacked physical strength, he more than made up in intellect, curiosity and confidence. He fixed cars; he fixed wiring; he fixed plumbing. He fixed it all. But only when he wanted to. Which was usually on weekends. And infrequently for us. Our household was boring and routine, and he needed a new challenge. Or perhaps a more appreciative audience.

The “Friends First” rule had other unfortunate variations, as you will see in time.

But I think that is enough serious stuff for the moment. How about I break things up with something lighter next time?

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post click here. For the next post click here.

Don’t Tell Your Father

Don’t Tell Your Father

This rule was a non-starter, and I’m surprised that someone as intelligent as Mom would even try it.

Dad earned the money, and he determined how it was spent. He had a budget for everything, and he expected Mom to keep all expenditures within the limits he had designated. I’m not sure his expectations were always realistic. For one thing, he wasn’t generally the one doing the shopping, so he may not have been aware of what things cost. Secondly, his idea of “need” versus “want” didn’t overlap too well with Mom’s.

If my Dad said the grocery budget was $X for the week, God forbid Mom should go over it. If she couldn’t make ends meet, she was just not being frugal enough, gosh darn it! My Dad had grown up shoeless in Texas on cornbread and beans, and he just didn’t understand her frustration. My Mom claims that we did not, in fact, have chicken and dumplings for dinner ALL. THE. TIME. but that’s how I remember it. Budget food. Blobby homemade flour dumplings swimming in chicken broth with celery, carrot slices, and chicken bits. Gross! I might have grown to like it in time if it hadn’t been such a staple.

Culinary matters were usually not too terribly contentious. Where things got a bit hairy was when it came to clothing. My brother was the youngest child, and he remained completely content with utilitarian items for many years. But my sister and I started realizing that our wardrobe of Sears Toughskins high waters, striped turtlenecks and Keds left a lot to be desired. Other girls had maxis, minis, and go go boots! And then there were halter tops, bell bottoms, and, sigh… Avon!

Mom understood the seriousness of the matter. A girl from the suburbs of D.C., she knew we needed to have a little “something” now and then to make us feel pretty and keep us from feeling like oddballs. Periodically she’d give in to her impulse to buy us some coveted item which had caught our eye. “Don’t tell your father,” she’d say conspiratorially, “It’s our little secret.” We were thrilled! Mom was our heroine! Yay!

Everything was great until Dad went to balance the checkbook and take care of the bills. What was Mom thinking?! Did she really think he wouldn’t notice?

“Carol!”

“Yes?”

“You’ve gone over budget again!”

“Oh my! How could that have happened? I was being so careful!”

And so it went. Dad puffed out like a rooster and Mom eating crow.

Dad used to confide in me that Mom needed his close supervision because she was like a child, and she just might not be bright enough to balance a checkbook. I knew Mom was dumb like a fox.

In her way, my mom was a very powerful woman. She still is. I give her credit. But in time, the words, “Don’t tell your father” caused me to decline the treat. The price was just too high.

This post is part of a series called Family Rules. The prior post is here. The next post is here.

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