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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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Don’t Tell Betty

Don’t Tell Betty

(Poor Betty! She was and is a great person, and she isn’t a gossip. This isn’t even about her. Sorry, Betty! This rule should actually be called “What Happens in the Family Stays in the Family.”)

I knew it was going to be a long evening whenever my mother started a conversation with, “Betty says….”

“BETTY says?! BETTY says?!” my Dad would spit contemptuously.

“Betty says,” translated to “MOM BLABBED.” Everything was considered blabbing. You part your lips, you blab. We’re not talking about topics such as sex or family finances. Even seemingly ordinary topics could earn Mom the reputation of having loose lips. Breathing = Conversing = Blabbing in my Dad’s way of thinking.

Dad guarded his privacy. Maybe it made him uncomfortable that many of the husbands in the neighborhood, including Betty’s husband Wilbur, worked with my Dad at a secure government facility. Maybe Dad’s job made him paranoid. Or maybe the neighborhood felt unpleasantly like a small town in which everyone knew everyone else’s business. Perhaps he was living out a family rule from his own childhood. I’m trying to understand his logic.

Truth be told, there was no bona fide dirt available on either Mom or Dad. No addictions, no crimes, no affairs, no financial crises. Just garden-variety family dysfunctions and eccentricities. My Dad’s biggest offense at this point might have been the way he walked around the yard in warm weather. This was nothing new. I’m sure the neighbors had all observed him turning the family garden plot shoeless, in his saggy v-neck undershirt, slacks, and black dress socks. Worst were the truly hot days when he kept the long dress socks but swapped his slacks for white cotton shorts. The retinas (retinae??) of the unsuspecting viewer were burned by the sight of his long, transparent legs, which sported a sparse covering of long black hair and were dappled with moles of varying shades and topographies. OK, that probably WAS a crime.

But I digress. The point is that my Dad did not want to know what Betty thought about the price of eggs or anything else. This is because he felt violated and exposed by the knowledge that my mother had gone as far as to discuss a matter as titillating as the price of eggs.

Probably Mom HAD at some point discussed something personal in nature but everybody needs trustworthy friends in whom they can confide. I don’t know where I’d be without my girlfriends. Besides, being home alone all day with no car and three young children could really make a person nuts, especially someone social like Mom.

Maybe her real mistake was letting it slip that she was not as silent as a sphinx. Or maybe it was as simple as having friends.

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

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