30 April 2006

Family Drama

This post is an update of an old personal narrative of mine. I found it again while doing some spring cleaning in my filing cabinet. Since then, I've been thinking about it a lot, especially in light of Katherine's blog. I think it's relevant to most of our families, so I thought I'd post it here.

Who am I? The oldest, the clean freak, the over-achiever, maybe the bossy one, probably not the kindest, and certainly not the most athletic. That part's easy, but since this act is my life, identifying me gets more complicated.

Act I
The oven timer buzzes in the kitchen, begging Mom to return to cooking dinner. She claims she has stepped away for just a moment. I doubt it. Plastic swords click and clack down the hall, eventually interrupted by wails of terror and pounding feet. Josh has decided he's done with the duel. Michael decides he's not. The opening theme of Star Wars and the clinking of knitting needles comes from the back room, where Heather is working on her latest project: a fluffy scarf in shocking pink.

From the front room, Spencer's fingers fly up and down the piano, the buzzing notes forming the incessant melody of "The Flight of the Bumblebee." Listening to it for the first time was quite a remarkable experience; the song sounded so like a bee flying around your head at a picnic. However, the droning melody could be tolerated only so many times before the desire to squash the insect overpowered the listener. Spencer had been playing the song obsessively for the past hour, and now my fingers itched to take a flyswatter to the keyboard. Luckily, Dad was at work, or the cheering crowd of the NBA semifinals would be added to the already intolerable din.

"Spencer, could you please practice later? I need to study and that song is driving me insane," I pleaded, trudging into the front room with a week's worth of biology notes.

"You messed me up! Now I'm going to have to start all over," he said, with a suspiciously undisappointed grin. "Go study somewhere else."

"I can hear you everywhere in the house, so it doesn't really matter. I have a test tomorrow! Come on!"

"Then go outside. I was here first."


Act II
"Michael, leave Josh alone. Josh, stop overreacting to Mike. He's just tring to bug you," I quipped, trying to diffuse yet another fight.

"Shut up, Liz! Stop being the mom!" Mike shouts back. His words deflate my false sense of impartiality. Those syllables recall weeks and months of built up tension, mostly from parents who wanted me to stop being so critical and finally coined that wonderful phrase. Of course, the issue couldn't be handled privately and personally. Our family never addressed any elephant sitting on the front lawn until tempers flared and someone wanted to inflict maximum damage.

"You're not the mom, Liz." That phrase, in all its variations, served quite well as the all-purpose comeback, and my siblings had used it to a fault. Seldom could I speak a word without having that refrain echo back to my ears. The constant repetition had created a definite bitterness.

But it's not as simple as that, I rationalize. I know I'm bossy, but I don't do it because I want to be or because I think I'm in charge. All right, sometimes my motives are purely selfish, but sometimes they're not. Sometimes I just want some peace and quiet, for the chaos to just stop. Is it so unfair to want some peace in my own house?

Irrationally, against anyone's better judgment, fragmented emotions stream out of my mouth, the ones that had stewed for weeks. Now they made little sense outside my own head. "You shut up! I know I should stop. So thanks for telling me again, as if I don't get reminded of my biggest fault every second of every day! And I try, I really do. But could you just stop? I can't take all this any more. I'm just trying to help! I don't care what you say."

It's a lie, an act.

"What?" I said.

I had lost them in November. It was now June.

"We found your DVDs. While Heather was gone at camp, I was cleaning her room and found them under a pile of socks in her closet," said my mother, holding up the discovered items.

I grabbed the DVDs out of her hand and shuffled through them. "But I've been looking for those forever! I specifically asked her if she knew where they were, like, a million times!"

Mom drew her breath, trying to figure out how best to put what she had to say. "When I asked her about them, she said she was sick of you watching that show all the time. You know how she hates it. So she took them."

She stole them.

My breath lodged in my throat as the universe paused. Heather and I had never been close, except in age: sisters, but not friends. I was the designated honors student; she hated me for it and made sure not to do anything that I had ever tried. We even went to separate high schools. We were too different. Despite that, I suddenly felt betrayed, unsafe in my own house. I had found other things of mine in her room before, but never anything as costly and arbitrary as this. What about that brush that disappeared last week? Is that hiding in a drawer in her dresser? Was my favorite shirt stashed under her bed? That single act forcibly removed a security blanket I didn't know I had, leaving me old in my own stronghold.

She stole them.

The universe and my breath rushed back in shuddering sobs.

Act IV
"Mark, Cristina, and the new baby are coming to Salt Lake on Thursday," Mom proclaimed that afternoon. "Cristina's still very sick; she needs people to help her take care of Amelia."

I was still in a state of shock at the suddenness of the events. While most of our family lived in Salt Lake, my aunt and uncle lived across the country. When Cristina became very ill after giving birth, they had no family around to help them. So we brought them here, just like that, without a second thought. I heard the phone conversations myself. "Don't worry about the money." "You just need to be here so you can get better." "It'll all work out."

Mom continued, "Our family is going to fast for Cristina tomorrow, and we're getting together tonight to start with a family prayer. It would be nice if you all could come. Are you guys doing anything too important?" Afterschool clubs and parties quickly melted away.

That night at Aunt Tera's house, we gathered my mom's side of the family--about 40 people, on a few hours notice. The younger cousins chased each other around the house, creating the usual bedlam of a family party, except without the food. Aunts and uncles deftly completed travel and living arrangements, discussed earlier by phone. Those who didn't have room for houseguests offered to baby-sit or provided money for the plane tickets from Washington, D. C. Then, children were herded back into the main room and silenced as we prepared to begin our fast with a prayer. Though the exact phrases weren't memorable, the spirit in the room was extraordinary. I felt a sense of unity . . . and something else, something that I had been so lacking.

This unselfish act set me thinking. There's more here.

Act V
Something was unfinished. I couldn't sleep.

So I began to walk around the house. I shuffled over the forest green carpet in the basement, dodging the usual clutter: unfinished Lego sculptures, a jumble of video tapes invariably not rewound or put back in the case, torn-out pages from YM and Teen, stacks of paper filled with Heather's drawings and story ideas, Discover card bills, and manila folders. But whatever I was looking for wasn't there.

I walked up the stairs, covered in green also. In the kitchen, dinner dishes remained unwashed because of the usual fight over whose turn it was, with more bills and offical looking papers covering the counter. The refridgerator hummed invitingly, but I didn't exactly feel like a midnight snack. What did I need?

The family room: Dad fallen asleep watching TV on the blue sofa again, after another 12-hour day at the job he hated. In the flickering blue light of the local newscast, Spencer was still avidly watching the results of the Jazz game (he never missed the sports--every night at 9:45). As I look at him, something finally clicks.

Inexplicably, I shuffle over to the couch. I reach over to give him a hug, which he is too tired to resist.

"I love you," I realized, and shuffled back to bed.

It's hard to whittle down a lifetime's worth of pain and love into a single play, with themes and a conclusion, mostly because there isn't a conclusion. Life must keep going and going. People keep getting broken and pieced back together, reshaped, and remade. I'm never quite sure who I am, but I keep acting out the play the best I can because that's the way it has to be.


Katherine said...

Sorry for the lengthy silence. As always, I've appreciated your comments. And thanks for this post. We really need to talk sometime. I'm in London already--been here since Saturday, but I'll keep checking your blog while I'm gone. Let's make a point of getting together more often when I get back. Hope all is well; see you in a few weeks.

P.S. Wicked doesn't open here until September. I was terribly disappointed when I found out.

rachella said...

Whoa ho ho, why have I never read your blog before? I like it. (Just inmagine me thinking that in a very cool, head nodding way). These entries are bringing back the sibling life that has been all too idealized youngest child point of view of mine.