April 18, 2010
When I was a child, television was full of families that seemed to get along so well. I'd watch shows like Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It to Beaver or Donna Reed. What happened during the space of a half an hour was a relevation to me.
One of the perfectly coiffed children would act out a little bit. The apron-wearing mother would purse her lips and put her hands on her hips. "Wait until your father gets home," she'd say. Uh oh, I'd think. Now something interesting, meaning something I could relate to as marginally true to my own experience, will happen.
The father finally arrived, fully pressed, freshly-shaved, and with enough blood sugar in his sysem to be unfailingly polite to everyone. After affectionate greetings all around, the family would sit down to dinner at a beautifully set table, and they would talk calmly about the current infraction of the rules. (At my house, when one of us messed up, my mother liked to cut my father off at the pass, BEFORE he had anything to eat, knowing how grumpy he always was on an empty stomach. Lots of yelling usually ensued.) By the time the credits rolled, the offense had been aired, valuable lessons had been learned, reasonable punishment had been doled out, order had been restored, and everyone lived happily ever after until the next episode.
What was going on here? Was I living on Mars or were they? What happened on these shows bore no resemblance to conficts, real or imagined, that erupted in my neck of the woods. No one in my large extended family EVER forgot anything. Consequently, if someone did something someone else didn't approve of, none of us had any hope of hearing the end of it while we remained upright and breathing.
My uncles continued to argue over who paid for one of my aunt's college education 30 years after she graduated. In 1990, I overheard my mother say that no one in the family should ever eat fish again, since her great uncle had choked to death on a fishbone when she was two years old. That meant he would have died roughly around 1915, if I'm foolish enough to believe what my mother told me about her actual age. No one in the family (except sneaky old me) had supposedly interacted with a gilled edible since then. My mother and aunts maintained their two-decades-old vow of silence toward their stepmother at my grandfather's funeral, while she sat in the corner like a visitor. My father and his younger sister didn't talk for ten years over a disagreement having to do with my grandmother. I'm not sure what all the issues were, aside from the fact that my grandmother was impossible and no one else volunteered a spare bedroom when my aunt decided living in the same house with her was no longer an option. Or how my father and my aunt finally and uncharacteristically made their peace with one another.
I have to wonder what Jim Anderson or Ozzie Nelson or Ward Cleaver or Alex Stone would do with such an unruly family. Maybe it's up to me as a writer to figure that out.