Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Putting the fun back in dysfunctional

My mother is amazing. She’s five feet two inches, weighs 110 pounds, and has an Executive MBA from one of the top business schools in the country (which she received in 1974 as the only woman in the program). She is incredibly well read and equally well-travelled, and - when you ask her for advice – she’s as likely to quote the Godfather as she is Churchill, both of whom she believes were “brilliant at the art of negotiation.” And though she is the epitome of a White Anglo Saxon Protestant woman, she sent her children to Catholic school because she believed that any curriculum devoid of Latin was not an education… a belief she still holds at seventy.

In short, she’s my hero. And not because her list of accolades is long, distinguished, and well deserved; but because the only two of them that ever mattered to her were the ones she received for being a good partner and parent. In return, my father adored her all of his life, and my siblings and I love her immeasurably - regardless of the fact that she has handed us some very expensive shoes to fill. That said, being her daughter has not always been easy.

However, before I can tell you that part of the story, I have to tell you this part first.

Growing up in Appalachia in the 1970s as the youngest of four had its own unique set of pros and cons. Kids still walked or biked everywhere. Most TVs only had four channels - ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. And - not only was dinner on the table at 6:00 every night - everyone was around the table to eat it. And it's true that we had a housekeeper/nanny, but only because my father travelled a lot and my mother worked 50 hour weeks. I assure you, our caregiver (Marlene) was not a perk, she was a necessity who became an extended member of our family and deserved EACH and EVERY dollar she made. Not only did she shuttle four kids to and from school and athletic activities, but she cooked and cleaned up after us as well. No small feat, given that my parents' home is a 10,000 square foot Victorian... and we were not good children.

When Marlene was on vacation, the task of watching us fell to my grandmother... who was deaf. And while some of you may think being unable to process sound is a curse, you never got stuck supervising the four of us. To this day, I don't think she ever felt like she "suffered" from hearing loss. To the contrary, I think she relished it, and some days my mother probably prayed that it was hereditary and that she would inherit it. Ironically, it skipped a generation and hit me - but only in one ear. It's the reason I don't have an inside voice (at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it).

At any rate, my mother and Marlene had an understanding - no one was to call her office unless there was blood or vomit involved, and even then - there had to be significant amounts of either before she could be interrupted at work. Turns out, my mother's Administrative Assistant was also informed, on-board, and (as they say in politics) on-message. So, when we would squabble, which we did... all the time, and we called our mom to complain, tattle, or cry, her secretary would say, "You know the rule. Is there blood? Is there vomit?" When we would honestly reply, "no," she would tell us, "Then she'll see you tonight at 5:30."

Clearly, my mother believed that our self-esteem mattered... She just subscribed to the rule of parenting which said that self-restraint and self-reliance were equally important life skills.

And yes, my parents' home is beautiful, I won't lie. As an adult, I cannot imagine owning it, but as a child - I could not imagine growing up anywhere else. We each had our own bedroom, and each bedroom had massive windows the size of patio doors, and each window in each bedroom led to a wrap-around porch - the roof of which occasionally acted as a race track for my brothers and me... but only when my dad was gone... and my mom was at work... and Marlene was on vacation... and my grandmother's hearing aid was off.

As fate would have it, from time-to-time, those planets would align... kids from the neighborhood would assemble... and a second story 100 yard dash would ensue. We called it the Appalachian Games, and thankfully no one ever got hurt... until my mother found out.

You see, one day, half way through the first heat, someone left a window open, and our cat jumped onto the roof, which wasn't really a problem... until the dog ran out after it... which still wasn't really a problem... until we couldn't get them back in. All of a sudden, it was like dog racing meets Jackass - the home edition. After numerous failed attempts, we rock-paper-scissored, and the loser called our mom for help. As I dialed her office, sobbing, I asked my sister, "Why should I have to do it?" To which she replied, "One because you lost, and two because you're the youngest. We haven't had you very long, so we'll miss you the least when you're dead."

She was only half-joking. I really was the youngest.

So there I was... seven years old... wailing... waiting for my mom's Admin to pick up. When she finally answered, we ran through the drill, "Is there blood? Is there vomit?" To which I replied, "No, but the dog is on the roof." After an awkward pause I heard, "The DOG is on the roof?" Then I heard my mother in the background scream, "THE DOG IS ON THE ROOF! PUT THEM THROUGH." Within two seconds, I heard my mother's voice say, "mkromd, why is the DOG on the ROOF?" To which I replied, "Because it was chasing the cat." Then I handed the phone to my sister and walked away.

They said I had to call and tell her. They didn't say how long I had to wait for her response.

It may well be the only time my mother ever came home early. As the four of us and the dog stood on the roof, watching her car come up the front drive, we knew the Appalachian Games would be more like the Olympics... they would be every four years because that's how long we would be grounded.

Talk to you next week.

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