Telling stories is not always easy. Where do you start? To whom do you tell your story? What opportunity do you have? Will I be judged? Good questions. I don’t know the answers. I only know that if you are compelled, begin. Maybe it is talking to someone with whom you feel safe. Maybe a daily journal or blog. Maybe a daily video. I only know that through my own experiences of storytelling, the simple act of telling a story of personal experiences gives perspective, helping us to see that our current struggles are not permanent. Sometimes remembering those “goofball” moments has reminded me of my own imperfections; the imperfections that make us human give us the opportunity to laugh at ourselves as well as lift the spirits of others. Our imperfect humanness is a fact. Sharing it instead of running away from it provides that connection. Let’s laugh and rejoice in it.
There were seven girls in my family. Our ages spanned twelve years from the oldest (twins) to the youngest. No boys. One bathroom. Eight women in my house including my mother. Needless to say, my father was swept away by a sea of estrogen. It was no surprise that the poor man drank. I am confident that conversation around the dinner table never gave him an opportunity to speak; which is why I remember him as quiet and calmly invisible. Never a bad, mean or abusive man, but just invisible among us. Looking back, I am guessing it was probably his survival mechanism.
Growing up, there was a strong sense of hierarchy, education and faith. I can’t remember my mother raising her voice to us or ever spanking us… maybe that happened to my older sisters, but not to me or my younger sister. And while my mother was the Matriarch of the family (not only my family, but our extended family on her side), my older sisters ruled the roost while the younger sisters took their lead and commands from anyone who was older. You never messed with my older sisters. N.E.V.E.R. and a law and order code was strictly enforced: no lying, no stealing, no fighting, no name calling and don’t do anything that would hurt or disappoint my mother.
Rules or not, my sisters found every opportunity to “punk” (as this generation would say) each other whenever, wherever and however they could. This is a family trait. To this day it is well practiced between us. Practical jokes and pranks are our modus operandi. We wear it like a badge of honor.
Nowadays, there are those “Hover-Mom’s” (you know, the “everyone-gets-a trophy-for-just-showing-up” Mom), would probably look at what we did to each other as “abusive,” “psychologically disturbing,” “child abuse,” blah-blah-blah. But we came out the other end of our childhood as being able to face challenges better, a better sense of self, tougher, resourceful and courageous and to not take ourselves so seriously. In our house, “I love you” meant taking out the garbage; being part of something bigger than yourself, helping each other, having each other’s back and never having to make a big show of it. If you did something outstanding, there was little said of it within the family – sure you got the nod or the “OK-sign,” but no one drooled all over you to tell you how wonderful you were. It was not an atmosphere of “atta-boy, great job!” That WAS your job: doing the right thing and being the best you could be at all times. That said, anyone within hearing distance that was outside of the immediate family heard an earful of our successes and accomplishments. It is like that even to this day. I hear more about my accomplishments from people who speak to members of my family, then from my own family members. “You didn’t suck,” is considered the highest of compliments from my sisters. Is this a good or a bad thing? I don’t know. It is how we grew up and so far we are college graduates, all successful careers, fully engaged in our lives, our families, our communities, our work; legally sane and none of us have ever been incarcerated. Looks like we are OK.
My first encounter with a bone fide family prank, happened when I was six years old. My sister Susan was notorious for her twisted deviousness; especially when it came to me, a sister who was five years younger than she is. It didn’t help that I Iooked up to her as if she were a goddess and believed every word she told me. I can’t help but think that her constant pranking over the years is directly connected to the fact that for five years, Susan was the baby in the family and getting all the attention… then I was born and shut that down, fast!
With seven girls, one can only imagine what it is like when “that time of month” arrives and the chaos full of emotional mood swings dominates a household with a megaforce! This was the 1950’s, and we still had those big, cumbersome Kotex pads and equally uncomfortable and unattractive garter belts that hooked the front and back gauze tails of the pad. The female population of my family demanded and stocked a box of pads that was nearly as tall as I was and stood on the floor of the bathroom linen closet.
On a beautiful summer day, I stood in the bathroom with my sister Susan. I had long hair and she was brushing and was preparing to braid my hair that morning. She opened the door to the linen closet to retrieve a towel, and I had been curious about the large box that stood on the closet floor. In earnest, I asked my sister what it was and what were those “cottony” things. And for one nanosecond I caught my sister’s eye and saw that look. That look that would forever haunt me. That look that I, at that time, was unable to recognize as the silent “MMMMMUUUUHHHHAAAA” (in an imagined, maniacal tone) look. I was too young and innocent to understand that this was a defining moment for me.
“Oh, you don’t know what these are?” She asked in a voice so sweet. “These are the best headbands that you can wear in hot weather. Look, let me show you.” And she took a pristinely clean Kotex pad and placed the thick cotton against my forehead and snuggly tied the two gauze ends at the back of my head. If that wasn’t enough, she gently brushed my long hair over the back of the tied ends so that it “looked nice.” Then proceeded to tell me, “Now, when you and your friend go bike-riding this morning, you won’t sweat one single drop down your face. This will protect you. And it looks great like that under your hair in the back. No one can see the tie, just this great headband.” This, with a completely straight face and motherly tone.
I was so excited that I could not wait to show my friends. Off I went to ride my bike around the neighborhood for the day. So proud of my new “head-band” and thinking how very cool I was of what I had and was probably the first of all my friends to have one. Oh, and it worked, too. No sweaty forehead or face for me! Now the three other kids I rode with that day were my age. Two were brothers without older sisters and the other was an only child in her family. All three thought I was mighty slick, too. One of the boys asked me if I could “get him one.” “Sure!” said I, “but I would have to ask my mother first. She has a box of them, but I’m not sure I can just give them away.” In my mind, shrewdly thinking that maybe I should be the only one in the neighborhood this cool. I was pretty much puffed up by this time and I could swear that even my bike riding and wheelies had improved over the last hour or so.
Back in the days, neighborhoods were a place where everyone knew everyone as well as watched and took care of each other and, God forbid, no one ever moved away. The only way you could get people to move out of their houses was through the coroner. Which is, at the same time, both a comforting and disturbing thought. Don’t even think about playing hooky from school and trying to hide out in a neighbor’s hedge. Neighbors would turn you in before the first bell rang in the schoolyard. So, as fate would have it, Mrs. Picard, who lived four streets away, made a phone call to my mother. Years later, when my mother retold her side of the story, she said that Mrs. Picard was laughing so hard she was crying and my mother could hardly understand what she was talking about. But what she managed to understand was, “Have you seen your daughter this morning?”
As I sped my bike across the neighborhood on that beautiful summer day, free of school or cares or sweat and in that moment feeling the exhilaration of being the coolest kid EVER, I suddenly heard my mother’s voice – so loud that it could have been heard in Boston – “Ida!” and then right after that, “Susan!”
And the rest has become family legend retold over and over and over again…mostly by Susan.