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A Sorry Translation

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

One legacy my father left to me was the Book of Family Rules. Since his death in 1990, the important role of Keeper has fallen squarely upon my shoulders.

This isn’t a book which can be read and followed as, say, a cook book or the instructions for assembling a bicycle. To the uninitiated, the Book would seem a hodgepodge of family stories and remembrances, assembled for mild-mannered entertainment on a rainy day and without thought to cohesiveness or purpose. On the contrary! This sacred Book has instructed my family in proper living for generations. So potent are its formulas that they must be hidden in plain sight.

A few of the rules are pretty straightforward and discernible, even to the untrained eye—A Lie is a Spank and Food is Love, for example. For the most part, however, a proper exegesis requires the Decoder Ring, which, I am sorry to report, was not among my father’s personal effects or in his safety deposit box. As a result, I am required to spend untold hours hunched over the brittle pages of this text, extracting what I can.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my younger sister, Gwen, has hidden or destroyed the ring. She won’t say. Gwen never has cooperated. She never did like the Rules, and she refused to follow them no matter how many times my father spanked or pinched her. But then again, she is one of those annoying people who speaks of therapy as a positive thing  and uses words like “dysfunctional,” “enmeshment,” and “abuse.”

All that is by way of background.

What I want to share with you today is my most recent discovery. I found another Rule, and it wasn’t even buried! I had suspected I’d find this one if I just kept reading, and I did. Days like this are so exciting that they give me the strength I need to keep coaxing the Book to give up its secrets. I must not lose courage! How will my future generations live if the code is lost?

When we were small, my father took the time to translate certain Rules from the Book. He had hired a German tutor to prepared me and Gwen for our move overseas, so we were familiar with the concept.

Danke = Thank You

Junge = Boy

I’m sorry = I’ll never do it again

“I’m sorry” is actually a promise. And promises cannot be broken.

I took this Rule very seriously. I did. I tried to be a good girl. But this law was absolute, and I was a repeat offender. I became skilled at hiding my guilt from others—and myself.

Don’t. Tell. Gwen. I’m having an inkling of doubt about this Rule. I haven’t yet made up my mind. I’m not in any hurry to add the title Heretic or Dumbbell to Recidivist on my resume.

But here’s the thing….My father rarely apologized for anything. He seemed to prefer his own rule: Do as I say, not as I do.

This post belongs in the thread Family Rules. You can find the prior installment here. Earlier essays can be found under the Family Rules tab.

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Rule # 11: Logic Rules (unless we are talking about me)

“Trollveggen 2002 June” by Ximonic

As an engineer, Dad was governed by logic. Feelings were annoying gnats which had to be tolerated if one was not able to swat them away. Best to ignore them altogether. If you treated them as real, these sirens could get you into real trouble. Dad didn’t say this outright, but we knew. The so-called “human element” was just a cop out for weak people who couldn’t get from Point A to Point B—literally and metaphorically—in the most efficient manner.

When he planned vacations, Dad calculated ahead of time how far we’d drive each day and mapped out the exact route and stopping points. He generally booked our lodging in advance, so he was reluctant to deviate from the plan due to silly inconveniences such as traffic backups, hunger, or wanting to stretch. And God forbid you should have to pee before the designated pull-over time. More than once, my brother was offered a coke-can urinal. I have a memory of standing up in the back seat, holding the seat back in front of me, so I could dry my soaked shorts in the wind rushing through the open windows. Worst was the time I was required to relieve myself (number two) hurriedly on the pavement in a truck rest area–beside the open car door and in full view of my family and passing highway traffic. I learned in my professional training that most children have few memories before the age of five. I guess I remember this so clearly because I was at least six and a half.

We traveled everywhere in our gargantuan Ford station wagon. Back in 1970’s Germany, this Straβenkreuzer (roughly translated “one helluva big-ass set of wheels) named Betsy caused the natives’ eyes to bug as we narrowly escaped becoming irretrievably wedged between the houses lining the Rhine Valley’s ancient cobblestone streets. I swear, I could have reached through the open window and snatched a Brőtchen from the breakfast table of one gaping Frau. We were so close I could see the hairs of her mustache.

While touring Scandinavia, Dad quickly discovered that his calculations would not hold up on the mountain roads of Norway. But it was ok. We could make it to our hotels. And really, what choice did we have considering there were few places to stay, and it was high season? We just had to drive up to 16 hours a day. Let me mention again how generous my father was. He had invited our three remaining grandparents to accompany us on this adventure. One grandmother was a chain smoker who couldn’t tolerate open windows. But more importantly: You do the math. There were 6 seats, 8 people, and no luggage carrier for a two-week trip. Two of us had to ride with the luggage in a space the size of a postage stamp.…My sister Gwen and I “volunteered.” We pinched and slapped each other to pass the time. Or we stuffed oranges up our shirts and waved suggestively to passing motorists.

ANYway…we found ourselves daily cheating death as we crawled along narrow switchbacks with intimate and utterly unprotected views of the fate which awaited us should Betsy’s wheels stray an inch in the wrong direction. We prayed to God we would not to encounter a tour bus. We prayed even harder each time we did. We tested the limits of our deodorant as we we waited to see which vehicle would win at the game of Chicken. We gave heartfelt thanks when we had to back up less than a quarter of a mile to a pull-off so a bus could pass. I would probably show promise at deep sea diving based on the fact that I was too nervous to breathe more than 8 times a day.

On a side note, there were fun aspects of the trip. We saw beautiful sights. We also had the adventure of overnighting on a ferry during a fjord crossing during rough weather. I recall my excitement as the rows of glasses lined up in the bar slid across the shelves and over their barriers, crashing to the floor in style. I snickered as the pretentious man in the white linen suit, the one who had been flirting with my Mom, spilled Coke down his front. I had lox for the first time and have loved it ever since. One of the strangest moments, however, came when my ladylike and somewhat prim maternal grandmother discovered an empty whiskey bottle under her mattress and a brimming chamber pot under her bed. This provided some levity. Or maybe it was an outlet for the building hysteria. But she laughed as hard as the rest of us.

Oh, I am so easily distracted! Back to the feelings part.

Here are a few very secret secrets: My Dad cried during every Hallmark commercial. Every single schmaltzy one. He never admitted it, even when we caught him. My Dad was deeply moved by music. I have two musician daughters and often wonder if part of their joy came down through him. He adored and became week-kneed and pliant in the presence of bossy old ladies. My Dad preached against non-essential spending but he had a lot of cool cameras and a super duper hi-fi set. Just sayin’.

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

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