05 March 2007

Family Stories

Did I mention how much I love my study abroad class? For the midterm, we got to make up our own questions related to the ideas we're discussing about the stories, and then just free-write about them for a class period. Awesomeness. The question I choose was "How are our roles in my family shaped by the stories we tell about each other? Do the stories we tell change the roles we play?" The question comes from David Copperfield--how his uncle Murdstone labels him unfairly as a problem child after only one incident. I think we tend to do this a lot in our lives, and I wanted to explore how my family does it. Anyway, I think the results are pretty interesting, and some of you might appreciate them. It was a good midterm though. It challenged me to write stories, rather than philosophy, which is something I need to practice. And I haven't done any editing yet for tone shifts and misspellings, so cut me some slack.

The least favorite story I’ve ever had told about me by my family is that I’m controlling. I’m an oldest child, it’s what I’m supposed to do, right? I spent a lot of my childhood babysitting younger siblings, or helping them out in school. In return for all this help, I’ve always felt like I deserved some sort of authority, like I should have a say. Authority’s probably not really the word I’m looking for, I guess. It’s more like advisory. I want to have my opinion count for something, to be able to give advice like a parent would. It’s the least I can ask: in exchange for the responsibility, shouldn’t I get a few of the rights?

But about when I was 15, my parents decided I was too controlling. Our family was never one to talk about these sorts of issues behind closed doors, in a calm and rational way. I think it started at the dinner table one night, when I was advising my sister on how to deal with her crazy friends who were always in some sort of drama. It seemed to come out of nowhere: “Liz, you’re not the mom. Stop it,” my sister said. I tried to defend everything I said as completely objective, and looked to my parents for backup on this. But I found the tables had been turned on me: “No, Liz, she’s right; you aren’t the parent, so you need to stay out of everyone else’s business.”

For the next few years, the phrase “you’re not the mom” haunted most of my hours at home. Like Murdstone’s labeling of Davy—“Be careful. I bite.”—it was soon blown past any original meaning. It was certainly true at one level that I needed to stop controlling people. It’s a problem that I’ll need to battle for a long time yet. But the phrase soon just popped out whenever I talked at home. I couldn’t state an opinion about whether it was going to rain tomorrow without being accused of coveting my former role. At first, I would try to explain how the situation was not at all similar to the original problem, but it took so much effort that I soon gave it up as a lost cause. It got to the point where I simply didn’t want to talk any more at home because no one would respond to what I was saying. All they could see was the problem.

***

Michael is my second youngest brother. Actually, he’s the second oldest too. He’s right in the middle of the three brothers—Spencer, Michael, and Josh. And he acted like a typical middle child, trapped in the middle of nowhere. He and Spencer never got along well. This is partially because for most of his childhood, Spencer was possessed of some sort of demon that convinced him the best way to have fun was to try to push other people’s buttons. Not in a friendly sort of way—the way you might tease someone who you loved. Not in a sadistic kind of way either—it wasn’t the same as the sick kid down the street who enjoyed mutilating animals for fun. It was really just a kind of psychological warfare, or perhaps experiment, for Spencer: to find the smallest thing that annoyed someone, something completely ordinary like putting his feet on top of your magazine or sitting in the chair right behind you when you practiced piano, something he could do completely on accident, and then to do it subtly and repeatedly until his victim’s temper finally exploded with nothing to blame for it.

Michael was his favorite victim because he had more of a temper than the rest of us. He had a hard time expressing himself with words—we later found out he was dyslexic—so he would lash out with his body. And since they were only two years apart, they were always together at family activities. They were expected to play together (as siblings who are close in age usually are; it never seems to work out well though). Spencer understood Michael inside and out, watched him like a hawk. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a list somewhere of all the tools Spencer could use to upset Michael.

It started out as only once or twice a week, but at its peak, there’d be a major fight once or twice an hour. Spencer would start out by breathing too loudly, or sitting too closely. Michael tried to tolerate it for as long as he could, but eventually he would just explode. Fists would be flying and hair would be pulled. Unfortunately, by then, Michael would be too mentally off-balance to do much damage while Spencer would be cool as a cucumber, keeping himself just out of harm’s way until Mom arrived. Then he’d play the innocent victim: “I wasn’t doing anything, Mom. He just started hitting me.”

My mom knew better, of course. I don’t think mothers ever really believe their children’s excuses, and she’d known about Spencer’s experiments for a long time. But I think she, like the rest of us had long given up trying to change Spencer. He seemed perversely stuck with who he was, and we’d just have to pray he’d grow out of it someday. No, she’d give Spencer a verbal slap on the wrist, and then turn to Michael. “You know, he can’t make you angry unless you let him. You just have to ignore him.” Every time, every day, the same thing.

It just became another tool in Spencer’s toolbox.

***

My mom and dad’s relationship has always been interesting. To this day, I’m not sure how they got together. They just seem so different from each other. Dad studied accounting and political science at school: can you get more practical than that? Meanwhile, my mother meandered through college. First, she studied computer science, practical enough, though I don’t think she did it to make money, but just because she liked the idea. But her real love showed through when she got her second degree in English and eventually earned her Master’s in--Horrors!--English. As impractical as you can get, though I still go to her when I need to talk about a good book or understand some doctrinal issue.

She was supposed to be abstract and flighty, or at least that’s the story my dad always used to tell about her. “Mom can’t multitask,” he would always say. He meant it kindly, and you could see that it was true. When she was talking to someone on the phone, you couldn’t have gotten her attention to let her know that her shoes were on fire. And speaking of fires, there was one time when she put cookies in the oven and then took all the kids to the library. Being raised by an English major, of course these trips took well over an hour. We returned to a smell like a charcoal bar-b-que that hadn’t been cleaned all winter had been lit inside the house. I still remember looking at those dozen cookies on the cookie sheet: perfectly round black circles, like I’d imagined coal might be.

She was always doing things like that when she was cooking, not adding the yeast into the bread dough or forgetting about the five pounds of raw meat she’d been defrosting in the microwave, so that you’d find the next morning when you went to heat up your oatmeal. Dad, on the other hand, has always been a wonderful cook. He can balance five different dishes and have them all finish at exactly the same time so that everything would be hot and fresh. And his cookies are still something I ask for every time I come home.

My mom always laughs it off when my dad points out her impracticality. “That’s why I married your dad,” she said, “so you kids would have some chance at not being scatterbrained like me.” But sometimes I see tears in her eyes when Dad would harass her after a particularly bad cooking fiasco, like the turkey that never seemed to be done.

4 comments:

Joni said...

Hey you-first of all, congrats on your essay! I'm excited for you. Second of all, I can relate on the top part of this. Oldest child...supposed to be the example, but not supposed to let anyone else know about it because then you're being the boss...bah. It's a bit frustrating. I think Andy and Jared are a bit like Spenser and Michael in some ways. Andy's a mastermind when it comes to manipulation when he wants to be. He's *so* good at getting what he wants out of people. In a lesser degree (I hope!!) he reminds me of Peter Wiggen. Except Andy doesn't have the desire to take over the world.

The Girl in the Other Room said...

So sister you have carefully detailed out the family except me and Josh. Thanks for leaving us out. We really appreciate it. And this analysis, as true as it may be, really upsets me. I can't articulate it half as well as you can, but it is just frustrating to read it unsuspectingly in a blog post when I was feeling good about everything. Until now.

Liz Muir said...

Sorry, I only had fifty minutes to cover the insanity that is our family. I think I have a story about you somewhere in an old essay . . . here it is. Sorry it paints you kind of poorly. I promise to write a better story about you later. :D As for Josh, I couldn't really think of any stories that related to the topic. He's just too cute to be stereotyped!

Don't freak out too much, Heather. Life doesn't need to be perfect and neither does our family. I'm just observing how we are. Observation is one half of change.

Liz Muir said...

Ironically, that essay has the "not the mom" story too. It must have had a bigger impact on my psyche than I thought.