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Rule # 5: Being-Visited Behavior

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I think you would have enjoyed being a visitor to my childhood home. As a guest, you would have been constitutionally incapable of doing wrong. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to proclaim, as in the old days of customer service, “The customer is always right!” Unlike the rest of us, you would not have been expected to be on-call
and maintenance-free.

When Dad was “on,” he was charming, thoughtful, and generous. In his gaiety, he would have spared no effort to make you comfortable in his court. I like that wording. Dad would have spared no effort of ours to make you comfortable.

While he piddled and we played, Mom shopped, cleaned and cooked in preparation. It must have been like shoveling against the tide. Our role in this performance came later when we were expected to portray Three Well-Bred Offspring and entertain you on demand by speaking German phrases, playing the piano, and sometimes–literally–performing a song and dance.

When I was small, I pretty much went with the program. What choice did I have? I delivered as well as I could, given my introverted temperament.

I may have been as old as 14 or 15 the last time my father instructed me to go downstairs and play the piano for our guests. I was to leave the door open so that everyone could enjoy my offerings as they wafted up into the living room.

My mind and body refused to comply. I am not even sure it was a matter of conscious choice. I felt sick. Piano lessons had been his idea. I wasn’t invested, and I hadn’t practiced in ages.

I smiled wanly, opened the door, walked calmly down the stairs, escaped out the back door, and took off running. I spent hours wandering the neighborhood, contemplating the punishment that awaited me once I returned. By some unprecedented stroke of luck, the guests had left, and my father had entirely forgotten my defiance by the time I dared to slink back home.

In another episode, my father became infuriated with me because of a septic backup. This was the summer my friend Hanna first came from Germany to visit.

Famously, our incompetent septic contractor had installed a small, tight bend in an inauspicious location, and this meant a fickle system prone to backups. We all knew about this delicate situation as we had been instructed by Dad ad nauseam on the maximum number of toilet paper squares permissible per job. The flushing of tampons was, of course, strictly verboten. I can’t speak for the rest of us but I wasn’t about to count squares. Still, I did realize that the bend was a formidable foe; and a stoppage meant snaking at best, digging and pipe cutting at worst.

This particular summer, the culprit was found to be a minuscule o.b. tampon lodged in said bend.

My Dad was fussing and fuming, and I was attempting to proclaim my innocence when I noticed Hanna growing more and more agitated. Finally, she burst:                      “I FLUSHED THE TAMPON!”

Silence. I loved her for saving me.

My Dad turned, gave her a beatific smile, and told her in a reassuring voice not to worry, it wasn’t her fault. He then turned back to me and continued to berate me in front of her for allowing my house guest to flush a tampon.

Ah, yes.

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

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Rule # 4: Visiting Behavior, Acts II & III

Rule # 4: Visiting Behavior, Acts II & III

Act II: The Performance

Dad wasn’t kidding when he laid down the rules. We were even held to rules we didn’t know–but should have. If we transgressed and were lucky, we got “The Look.” If we were unlucky, we got a furtive pinch. I am not talking about a love pinch.

My younger sister Gwen, God bless her, was more spirited and less cautious than I; and she often got the brunt of Dad’s ministrations. My little brother was largely immune due to age, cuteness, and, quite possibly, maleness. He might have been too young to understand we weren’t supposed to say, “Ouch!” when swatted, pinched, or kicked under the table; and that could have been risky.

But Gwen seized the day. Oh, how I envied her! Whether due to intransigent joie de vivre or a failure to learn from the past, my sis lived large. Since visits were miserable anyway; since The Review (Act III) and punishment loomed inexorably; why not enjoy life instead of sitting there like a flat tire? Apparently she had decided that fun now was worth punishment later.

Gwen loved water, and wherever water was to be found, she managed to accidentally fall in. Then she proceeded to have fun. How dare she!

Gwen loved makeup. She found all kinds of interesting cosmetics in Mom’s purse and, even better, in the bathrooms of the homes we visited. After putting on her face, she’d emerge, composed and cool, in a cloud of fragrance, behaving as though she didn’t know she had lipstick all over her face and couldn’t imagine how on earth it could have gotten there.

Gwen loved animals. After being explicitly told not to go anywhere near the puppies at one house, she emerged from the dog pen with the bitch’s tooth marks in her left buttock.

During a period in the 70’s, we lived in Germany. I remember one Sunday visit to friends in Pfungstadt especially well.

It was horrible.

It was wonderful!

In the car, my father prepped us. The lecture went something like this:

Unlike rambunctious American children, German children do not guzzle juice. Furthermore, juice is expensive in Germany, and you should not burden our hosts by asking for more than the one small glass you are sure to receive with your meal. Furtherfurthermore, Germans do not drink tap water, and so a request for any drink is a request for a bottled liquid purchased with their hard-earned money.

After drinking our one tiny glass of Saft at lunch, we kids were high and dry. Unable to stand it any longer, Gwen asked for more juice. Her request was immediately followed by a loud shriek.

Hilde, our concerned and startled hostess, asked my sister what was wrong. Gwen answered evenly, “My father pinched me.” Thinking she had misheard, Hilde asked again. Gwen obligingly clarified, “My father told me I could only have one glass of juice. I asked for more. So he pinched me under the table.”

Dad tried to play dumb but he wasn’t very convincing. Gwen got her juice. We all got our juice. We got all the juice we wanted.

Gwen had just bought us a few hours of power and freedom, and we set out to make the most of them. There was no time to waste since our coup would be repaid with interest once we left the sanctuary of Hilde’s modest home.

Act III: The Review

During the ride home and beyond, we were treated to a blow-by-blow recitation of our misbehaviors and the world-altering consequences thereof.

I probably became a therapist in self defense.

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

Rule # 4: Visiting Behavior, Act I

Rule # 4: Visiting Behavior, Act I

When it came to visiting behavior, my Dad imposed a predictable set of norms. This goes for visiting and being visited but for the sake of time, I’ll just tell you about our adventures outside the home. The visiting process is best explained to outsiders as a play in three acts: The Rehearsal, The Performance, and The Review. Dad worked overtime as director, star, and critic.

Act I: The Rehearsal

The rehearsal occurred on the car ride to our destination. We were instructed in depth on all behaviors in which we were NOT to engage. Most normal child behaviors were barred as “rude.” The idea was to help us to behave civilly but the clear message was “Don’t. Make. Me. Look. Bad.” Beyond the obvious (no boogers, farts, running, spilling, breaking, or loud noises) Dad’s admonitions to his three active young children invariably included

1.  “You may only have one small beverage. If offered more you are to say, ‘No, thank you.’

2.  “If you are offered ice cream, you are to say, ‘No, thank you.’

3.  “If you are offered cookies, you are to say, ‘No, thank you.’

4.  “If someone asks you if I told you to say, ‘No, thank you,’ you are to say, ‘No.’

     “Thank you.”

This last order was necessitated by our Great Aunt MiMi’s ability to see past our polite protestations. Upon our arrival, she promptly ushered us into her kitchen and served up massive quantities of both cookies and ice cream. Caught in the act, she claimed we had declined, and she had force-fed us. We always told her the truth after that. A coiffed and jewel-bedecked grande dame of the Martini Age, she was one of the few who could wind my father around her pinky, pummel him into submission, and elicit an adoring, school-boy grin without even breaking a sweat. Dad was fierce, but Aunt MiMi could dispatch him with one languid wave of her coral-painted fingertips, daahling.

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

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.

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