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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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The Mender (May, 1987)

Make do and mend copy

It’s funny how something as simple as a small boy’s open face can tumble even the firmest defenses.

Sitting at my desk at school, surrounded by half-filled mugs of coffee, dog-eared laboratory manuals, and fermenting laundry; pressed from all sides by assignments outstanding; due dates looming like dark clouds, I decided I had had enough. With a single gesture, I cleared my desk, sending self-important documents sprawling across the floor. Picking a pen and a few sheets of paper out of the wreckage, I began to write:

Zooming down the highway at seventy-five miles an hour, the young woman reviewed her time-table for the day. Before setting out on her errands, she had dutifully visited the tiny apartment her mother and grandmother had shared since her mother had abruptly left her father in mid-January. After thirty minutes of polite conversation, thirty minutes during which her mother had self-consciously picked at her ragged cuticles with large-knuckled fingers, thirty minutes during which her grandmother had rocked, quenched and quiet, in her oversized rocker, the young woman had excused herself.

She had gone on to the bank and then to the post office. Sometime before she headed back to campus, she would stop by the grocery store to pick up stockings for her grandmother and some cereal for herself. If she were lucky, she would have time to pick up her father’s suit at the dry cleaners.

But first things first….She was now on her way to visit her father, who had been admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. A week ago, he had almost died; but a second surgery and three transfusions had pulled him through. On her way to the hospital, she would stop at the house to look for his checkbook and gather his mail—today was the day she was to help him pay the bills. The daughter visualized her father’s fleshy and stubborn face atop his flaccid white body.

As she pulled up to the house, she noticed that the garbage cans were overflowing. They looked as though they had been sitting in the driveway for a week. The grass had grown tall since she had last been home, and someone’s lark had left tire marks, deep black scars, in the damp spring soil. Cigarette butts and bottle caps, a sure sign of her brother’s habitation, littered a path worn from the drive to the front door. In all the windows, the curtains had been drawn, adding to the property’s forlorn appearance.

Cautiously, she turned her key in the lock and stepped inside. Ugh! A cloud of stale marijuana smoke burned her eyes. She squinted in the darkness. As she made her way to the window to open the drapes and let in fresh air, she stumbled over a disarray of pillows and blankets mounded in the center of the living room.

When she had opened the drapes and thrown open the windows, she stood back in surprise. The house’s emptiness shocked her. At least her brother had had the courtesy to move most of the furniture and breakables out of the way before having a party. She shuddered to think of all that would have been ruined or missing had he not taken these precautions. Still, without the pictures and knick-knacks, the upstairs seemed gray and lifeless. Perhaps it was right that they should have been moved. The objects her mother had lovingly arranged throughout the house had perpetrated a cheerful lie. At least now the deceit had ended. Her mother had walked out three months ago, weary of her father’s bickering and her brother’s wildness. She would not soon return. Why shouldn’t the rooms of the house bear witness to the facts?

Now, in the afternoon shadows, the remaining cabinets gaped like empty mouths; white spots replaced the floral prints and showed the walls to be badly in need of paint. Butts and stains had rooted themselves in the brown carpet like persistent weeds. No scents of cooking or cut flowers warmed the house now. Instead, the air was ripe with the odors of stale beer and smoke–and vegetables rotting in the refrigerator.

She studied the huge black speaker strategically placed in a corner of the living room and facing her now with utmost contempt. Her brother had taped its wire to the carpet with strips of electrical tape, forming a snake-like suture leading back into his room and the mother system. Following this trail, his sister tiptoed back to his room. She expected to find him asleep, as usual, resting after a long night of partying, but he was not in his bed. Thank God he was not there! Had he threatened her today, nobody would have been around to help her.

Sleeping, he resembled a good-natured giant, his oversized hands and feet protruding from his wiry frame and dangling off the bed, which had become too short to contain him. And his face…he had prided himself on the scruffy beginnings of a mustache. Seeing him asleep, one could almost forget his temper, the drugs, the late-night police visits….

She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes in momentary relief.

In an instant, relief gave way to anger. Didn’t her brother EVER think of anyone but himself? Of course not! He had a way of worming his way out of every predicament, disclaiming all of the responsibilities and escaping most of the consequences of his doings. He simply did whatever her wished, knowing that eventually, someone else would be forced to pick up his tab. What would happen now? Her father was to be released from the hospital in a few days. Was he to come home to this? Was it any wonder he had developed an ulcer?

Ignoring the knot in her stomach, she tried to focus her energies on the problem at hand. She willed the larger issues to the back of her mind in order to treat their symptom. She would just have to squeeze out a few hours to do some straightening and cleaning.

Where should she begin? She could not move the heavy furniture herself, and yet she knew she could elicit no cooperation from her brother. Her sister would be of no assistance. She had moved out a week ago, her green eyes shot with red, and was still too uneasy to return to the house. Her mother…? She would not ask this woman to abandon her new-found adolescence for motherhood in all of its responsibilities. Enough! She would concentrate on the positive—how she could serve her father and how she should be glad to be able to serve him in this way. With her hands on her hips, lips pursed, she surveyed her situation and determined what she could accomplish alone.

Gathering up the soiled bedding, she sang to herself. She sang as she emptied hampers and retrieved underclothes and towels from bathroom floors. By the time she had hauled all the bundles down to the laundry room, she was weary of Joni Mitchell and her melancholy lyrics and searched her mind for lighter tunes.

Time flew as she straightened and scrubbed, dusted and vacuumed. Her mood began to lift. A gentle breeze had cleansed the air; and, like a tender rain, the pine-scented cleaner had bathed the house in freshness. The sinking sun warmed the rooms, repossessing them one by one.

Brave in her triumph, the young woman dared to touch the large speaker which still defaced the living room. She pulled up the black tape and managed to push the beast back into her brother’s room and shut the door. She felt the satisfaction of one who has vanquished a trespasser. Flicking back her damp bangs with the palm of her hand, she felt ready to face her own room.

She thrust open the door and met with the sound of breaking china. Now she knew where her brother had stored the articles he had removed from the other rooms. Appliances, boxes of breakables, and a stray bong prevented her from opening the door very far and forced her to squeeze her way through for a closer look. After a quick examination, she retreated, not desiring to compromise her good cheer. She would reclaim her own room another day. Today she had neither the time nor the energy to wonder who had slept in her bed, or what had become of her jewelry box, or what that was floating in her toilet. She closed the door and returned to the living room for one last inspection.

She was genuinely pleased with what she had been able to accomplish. Small victories such as these made the larger battles seem less formidable. With every struggle, she acknowledged, comes a bounty of good. Silently she thanked God for the beautiful weather. She thanked Him for the fact that her father would be leaving the hospital shortly… and that she had entered the house before he had.

She put behind her the times she had attempted, herself, to mend and patch and pick up the loose ends in her household. She put behind her the times she had believed in herself, her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, and been disappointed. She felt strong. She had hope. Soon things would change—she had prayed that they would. God had heard her. Soon there would be an end to this vicious spiral, the seemingly endless chain of bitterness and rebellion. Yes, she had hope: vibrant hope, realistic hope—realistic because she knew that whatever its form, God’s answer was at hand. Her mother might never return; her brother might never change from his abusive lifestyle. Still, she knew relief would come.

Looking out the picture window at the blooming dogwood, she observed Mark, the little boy from across the street, approaching her house. With large, clumsy steps, he bounced up the driveway, holding his cupped hands importantly before him. The girl smiled to herself. She wondered what he could be bringing this time… an injured bird, a dandelion, a fistful of cookies…?

He stopped before he reached the house and planted his feet steadily and deliberately, as if to brace himself. For a moment he paused. Then he rubbed his hands together, spreading a handful of refuse across the lawn. With a look of innocent satisfaction, he turned and started for home.

Violently, the girl flung open the door. In a second she had spun the child around.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she screamed, her flushed face inches from his.

Wide-eyed and without comprehension, he looked first into one pupil and then the other. He hesitated.

“My father was mad because your brother partied all night.”

Without realizing it, she had been holding her breath. Now, pierced to the marrow, she allowed it to escape, slowly deflating her rigid shoulders. Wearily, she reprimanded him.

“Why didn’t you at least throw them in the garbage can?” She pointed at what she now recognized as several hundred of her father’s address labels. How had they ended up on the neighbor’s lawn? Mark must have had quite a job to retrieve them all.

The boy’s eyes turned to liquid, and his chin trembled. Finally he replied.

“I didn’t know,” he wimpered, squirming.

Taking a step back, she scrutinized the offender. He was just a little boy, a child of six—not unlike her own brother at that age.

“Oh,” she answered, no longer aware of the child, who, frightened, turned and sprinted for home.

She remained for a moment in silent contemplation. A moment later, she returned to the house and began to cry.

I returned to the house and began to cry. Later, in the safety of my dormitory room, I picked up a pen and a few sheets of paper and began to write….

Image credit here

 

Rule # 12: The Perfect Gift Is Something You Would Like For Yourself

gift FutUndBeidl

Image courtesy of FutUndBeidl

Again, a rule my father actually articulated. The problems with this rule should be immediately apparent. I am ashamed to admit how old I was before I realized this probably wasn’t the best guideline for gift giving.

One Christmas I had my eye on a small brandy snifter. It was a clever gag gift—exactly the kind of thing I loved during my tween years. The “brandy” was sandwiched between thin layers of glass. From the side, it looked like a glass of brandy but if you tried to drink it, of course, nothing came out. I bought it for myself but convinced myself I was buying it for my father. It sat on a shelf in our living room until it disappeared one day.

In my early 20’s, I gave my mother a navy blue Nike sweatshirt. I got it when she decided it wasn’t for her.

Dad was the kind of husband who might use Mom’s birthday as a good excuse to replace a major household appliance. On the other hand, he was not the kind of Dad who would ruin a perfectly good birthday or holiday with clothing. When I was little, my heart would sink when my grandparents presented Gwen and me with those lightweight boxes which indicated right up front we’d be getting something “useless.” Whatever small element of surprise remained was quickly dashed since we generally got the same item in different colors.

I guess Dad did not follow the rule 100%. One time I begged and begged for a Cub Scout pocketknife and actually got it—even before I reached the age of majority. This was a real stretch for my father. He tended to anticipate danger at every turn. My mother swears my first word was “dangerous.” I thanked him by not slicing off any body parts. Another time I got the Barbie Camper and accessories I thought I wanted but didn’t. They just sat there stupidly. Something about them annoyed me.

My father was a true nerd, pocket protector and all. Some of his nerd gifts were right up my alley. He gave me a super cool Audubon bird call. He bought me experiments and kits from Edmund Scientifics. I made noise and messes! I wrote secret notes on dissolvable paper! I learned how metal expands and contracts with heat! An electronics buff, Dad gave me a small white transistor radio. It even had a wrist strap! I took it outside and hid in my favorite spots listening to Simon and Garfunkel.

Dad wasn’t one to martyr himself. He did not spend his energy on matters which didn’t interest him. He had a very active mind and was quick to become bored and impatient. My father was definitely not the kind of parent who liked spending time on the floor playing games or on the couch reading the same stories again and again. All I can say is Thank God for Mom.

Instead, Dad showed me how to build a solenoid radio, make rock candy, knit, crochet, garden organically, and program in BASIC. I wonder how many of my interests started as a way to connect with my father.

I hope the times he spent with me were gifts he wanted for himself.

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

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.

Rule # 9: I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

I think I was my father’s little boy.

I say this tentatively and with an apology to my younger brother Will. Both because I may have misunderstood–and that makes me sound queasily grandiose–and because it might sound like I am blaming him for not being chosen as heir. Maybe I should apologize to Gwen as well. If one daughter could be his son, why not the other? I believe it had little to do with our individual merits.

Maybe birth order is to blame since both my siblings are loveable and gifted individuals. Looking through my adult vantage point and my therapist goggles, I see that my father was prone to bending logic when it suited him. It is deforming to spoil, provoke, or ignore a child into brazenness, neediness, or despair and then point at that child’s behavior to justify your concerns about his or her goodness or stability.

The fact that I learned to negotiate the shifting shoals is both an achievement and a source of shame and guilt. I rarely ran aground in any obvious way. While I was astute enough to figure out and operate within the rules of engagement, I did not save or defend my siblings when I might have. Instead, I stood quietly by and watched as they were branded with various labels and then punished for bearing them. Older and stronger, I sometimes even threw them under the bus.

I know, I know. I was just a kid. But it still feels bad sometimes. Back and forth, back and forth I go. Was I a victim or an accomplice? This is how I wear my damage. They wear theirs differently.

Allowing myself to contemplate my brokenness brings self loathing. If I claim I am damaged, I selfishly compete for balm at the expense of those who need it more. I have shown I can manage. If I claim I am undamaged, I smell superior and condescending. There is no way out. Thankfully, the reverberations have become dampened over time. I don’t spend a lot of time or tears on this matter. It generally stays in the back of my mind, held comfortably in check by God’s cleansing and my adult logic.

Occasionally old feelings still build and threaten. Writing this–right in this moment–I feel the edges of madness pressing in. That slow sinking. Eyelids falling shut. Bad Jane, bad Jane. Time to take a break…

…The brands I received were different but no less constricting. Though I never struggled with sexual preference or identity, being Junior and being entrusted with my father’s inside views on my mother’s shortcomings caused me to associate my womanly emotional makeup with weakness and disown it as inferior. I was just as uncomfortable with my body.

I got to be the Good Student, the Responsible One, the Dutiful One. Whoop dee do. These labels came with the designations Stoic One and Stick In The Mud. I think in time I also got Sneaky One, and sometimes that one fit.

Gwen got to be the Feminine One, the Cute One, and the Artistic One. Sigh. Sadly, those were padlocked to the brands Dramatic One (never to be taken seriously, even in extremis) and Messy One (“She can’t help herself. It’s because of her artistic temperament.”). How would you like to labor under those prophetic burdens? And what do you think happens when two girls, so differently regarded and so close in age, have to share a single small room? This was not a recipe to cultivate sibling love.

Will had other brands but those escape me now. The comparison between me and Gwen was sharpest given our 18-month age difference.

Dad labeled me because he knew he knew me and what I was about. Looking at me was looking in the mirror. It was a Fun House mirror–wavy and distorted–but only one of us seemed to realize it. I was supposed to be an engineer like him. He knew it was a fit for me. I knew I would never, ever, do it. Even the thought of it made me clammy.

I stood up to him about the engineering major but compromised by giving in to his expectation that I enroll in 21 credits my first semester in college. He had done it. No problem! Never mind that I was participating as a scholarship athlete on a Division I sports team. I lasted a few weeks before quietly adjusting my schedule and doing my own thing. To his credit, he was entirely supportive. This marked the start of a better phase in our relationship. On the cusp of my adulthood, I began to understand him differently. I came to view his behavior as motivated more by a lack of insight than a spoiling for malice. More on that soon.

I ended up studying Bio and German. I said I might try for medical school though I knew I never would.

In retrospect, this may have been the most Jane I was able to be at this time in my life. The finding of Jane has been a molasses-slow and ongoing process. Bio was not my thing. German, I love, but not as a profession. Years later, I ended up in counseling and then in grad school for counseling. It’s a great fit.

As for writing? Too artistic for me to even contemplate.

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

 

Rule # 8: A Lie is a Spank

Photo courtesy of PicFreak

Photo courtesy of PicFreak

Dad coined this rule and actually called it “A Lie is a Spank.”

What he said was: A lie is a spank. If you tell the truth, I may not be happy but I will not punish you. If you lie, you will be punished. Don’t try to lie to me because I can tell if you are lying by looking into your eyes.

I believed Dad might indeed have some special power to detect lies, so I rarely lied outright. Instead I became sneaky and good at diversion and omission. I had to, really, because punishment was erratic and inconsistent. Behavior that got me grounded one day might elicit a good natured admonition and wink the next.

The rule wasn’t a great protector of truth in any case. If you were telling the truth and hadn’t done anything dishonest or unkind but Dad thought you were lying, your goose was still cooked. He was so persuasive in his disbelief that you began to doubt your goodness, if not your sanity. Apparently the corollary to “A Lie is a Spank” was “I Know You Better than You Know Yourself.” But I’ll tell you about that variation another day.

Once when playing in the yard, I did a cartwheel and ended up kicking my little sister Gwen in the nose. Granted, we were not the best of friends, but I had not intended to touch her, let alone harm her. A moment after she ran into the house crying, I knew I was in Big Trouble.

I claimed innocence when questioned by Dad. He responded by giving me a sly, conspiratorial smile: “Come on, Jane, I know it wasn’t an accident. You can tell me.” Again, I protested. But he insisted. And then he punished me.

My brain knew I hadn’t done intentional harm but my heart remained troubled. Was there an evil in me which I couldn’t see? I still have moments when that feeling engulfs me.

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

Rule # 5: Being-Visited Behavior

2048px-Pocahontas_at_the_court_of_King_James copy

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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