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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 #15: Words Without Deeds

Purplesmoke Macluskie

My father left for work each day in Betsy, our anthropomorphized station wagon, leaving my mother stranded at home with three busy children and a lot of housework.

Of course, my father regretted not being able to help out more at home. Of course, he wanted to show his support. My mother felt weary and somewhat isolated. My father racked his brain.

“Hmmm…what would be most helpful? A second car? A nice evening out on the town? A listening ear? A few bucks for a mother’s helper now and then?” Then it hit him:

Words! By George, my bride needs Rules and some good, strong Words!”

He wrapped them and presented them to her. First he gave her Rules to use with us children. These are self explanatory.

Then he gave her Words.

“Do!”
“Don’t!”
“Stop!”
“Come!”
“Go!”

These mighty Words were to provide the active ingredients in many powerful incantations. Carefully combined with ordinary words, their potential was limitless. Here are just a few of the spells they created:

“Do your chores!”
“Don’t talk to me that way!”
“Stop kicking your sister!”
“Come back here right now!”
“Go to your room!”

These spells, properly cast, would do the same thing as the magical comb and towel in the story of Baba Yaga. Thrown to the ground, the comb burst into a dense and impassable forest; the towel into and unfordable river. The Words would create a barrier to bad behavior and protect my mother from inconvenience and exhaustion.

What neither my father nor my mother realized was that the power of Words grows weaker and weaker with use unless they receive a regular application of  Deeds. Deeds are prescriptions which prevent Words from vaporizing before they strike their target. In case you are unfamiliar with the language of magic, the word “Deeds” is frequently translated into English as “discipline.”

Unfortunately, Dad was weak on Deeds. Maybe he had figured Words would be enough. Maybe he was lazy. Mom was better at Deeds but was afraid to use them without Dad’s support. Deeds can be difficult to wield alone.

Within a few days, the Words had no effect at all. My mother was outnumbered. Desperate, she reached for the Unspeakable Words. Yes, she did.

“Wait ‘til your father gets home!”

Dad approached the house, tired after a long day at work. An introvert, he had long exhausted his bank of words and Words and was feeling desperate for a little peace and quiet. Exasperated, Mom waited by the door, wringing her hands and holding up her own empty jar of Words.

The use of so many Words in the absence of Deeds had created a buildup of flammable vapor. The metallic click of Dad’s key in the lock was all that was needed.

I think I’ll stop the story there.

Parents: Punishment and discipline are not the same. Please remember this.

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

Photo credit here.

Rule #13: Dig It In & Pile It On

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

One of my daughters and I coined a term for a family rule which I learned from my father and attempted to pass down to my progeny. In recent years, transmission of this rule has been slowed and nearly halted, with the unfortunate consequence that I have been unable to properly imbue my daughters with a deep-seated belief in their own defectiveness.

You win some, you lose some.

The rule we now refer to as Dig It In dictated that if someone had made an error or in some way fallen short, you were obligated to inform her of this failure. With Olympic strength and endurance. The offender needed to fully comprehend 1. the inconvenience, 2. the irreparable damage (or at minimum, the potential for irreparable damage), 3. the mortification, 4. the danger, 5. the hurt, 6. the disappointment, and 7. the loss of face caused through her action or inaction.

Am I forgetting anything?

As you might guess, Dig It In led to a few sub rules, such as Not Me and Pile It On.

Think of Not Me as a game of dodge ball. See, my family did know how to have fun! “Who broke the lamp?!” “Not me!” Get the idea?

Once the perp had been fingered, it was time for Pile It On, which takes its name from football, another super fun game. While the accuser dug it in, any innocent bystanders, relieved to have been spared and wanting to make sure the tide didn’t suddenly turn against them, made sure the person who had been taken down stayed down.

If the person who had made the mistake came away thinking it was possible to be sorry enough–or ever fully remediate the error–the rule had obviously not been properly executed. A proper digging-in infuses the recipient with the knowledge that her very person is shameful.

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

Photo credit 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 # 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.

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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