Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Family Rules

My friend Debbie, who is the wisest person I know, says that every family has rules, but that most people don't realize, or even acknowledge, what they are. There can be rules that look to the afterlife: “We are all the same religion; no doubting allowed,” or they can tend toward the mundane: “We never know where we put the damn car keys.” They can even combine immortality and domesticity: “People who put knives in the dishwasher are going to hell.”

I remember an Independence Day I spent several years ago with a family which seemed to have some very, very specific rules. After dinner, the grownups were out in the street, setting off fireworks. I noticed some of those snakes, the firework that really doesn’t do anything, and I was gleeful. I turned to the five-year-old in residence and told her, “I love these! When I was little, I was scared of every firework except these!” She picked out only one word from my chatter, like a CIA operative whose only understanding of Arabic is the word for “bomb.”

“You were scared?” she said, with what felt like an equal mixture of disdain and jealousy. (This crazy lady was allowed to be frightened when she was little. Wonder what planet she was raised on.) I imagined a family crest for these people, with BRAVE right in the middle, in 72-point type.

I happened to be spending some time with this particular family again just a few months ago, and discovered another of their rules. I was babbling about the challenges of driving Mary Katherine’s theater friends to rehearsal, given: a) the scanty passenger capacity of my Beetle and b) the varying sizes of the teens in question. “If the tall boy or the large girl are going, we have to put them in the front seat, and then everyone else has to sit on laps in the back,” I said offhandedly. Every one of these people started, as if I’d just blasphemed, and I quickly realized I had.

“She’s large?” they asked, almost in unison. “You mean, she’s [lowered voices] fat?” I couldn’t tell which part of this comment had gotten them so agitated – that I knew someone who was not below-average BMI, that I admitted it, or that it didn’t seem to bother me. I added a mental Post-It note to their family crest: THIN. The whole thing was even funnier when I thought back on it and realized they'd completely skipped over the existence of the freakishly tall kid. Height was okay, just not width. Whatever.

Once I began looking for other families’ rules, it became hard not to notice them. Just in my limited circle of acquaintances, I know families whose rules clearly include:
  • “If you don’t zip up your coat when you go outside, you will die"
  •  “If you don’t eat the kinds and amounts of foods that I, the parent, command, (see above)”
  •  “It’s okay.” (If you think that maybe you’re not a girl, but a boy; if you want to go live in Tanzania; if you just don’t think this college is right for you, whatever"
  •  “Play hurt"
  •  “Every one of you kids is going to be a major motion picture star, or else"
  •  “Aim low"
  • “Things are bad, things are always bad, and it’s not our fault"
  • "The people with whom you spend Thanksgiving and Christmas are the ones you love best"
  • “We’re just getting over that thing that’s going around. Or maybe we’re just about to get it. Here, let me give you a hug"
  • “Everyone else has it figured out but us,” and its opposite partner, “We are so much smarter than the general populace”
  • “Do whatever you want with your life, as long as it allows me to brag to my friends”
  • “No whining"
  • "Stay within a 15-mile radius"
  • “Matching dresses are a sign of family unity and impeccable good taste, and anyone who says otherwise is a Democrat”
  • "We have no idea how this happened" 
Debbie contends that no one really knows what their own dictums are, at least until someone trespasses, but I know what I’d like our rule to be: We have clean countertops. I even know why this rule is so important to me, although it has never been observed for a stretch of time longer than 30 minutes, unless at least one kid is away at camp. Here's the reason: I entertain the utterly false notion that if I can control the physical space around me (the heaps of schoolwork, sunglasses and dirty clothing that find a way to the countertops with surprising regularity, for example), then I will have control over my life. It may not be true – a clean countertop will not prevent me from having to drive three kids to three separate locations between 5:30 and 6:00 o’clock tonight, for example -- but that doesn’t keep me from wishing it so.

If I dug a little deeper, I would have to admit that my own personal motto probably is “There’s more where that came from.” I have never, ever served a plate of food to anyone and been able to stop myself from saying this. I feel like Rain Man when I do it, and it usually generates eyerolls from even the most well-bred of my children’s friends, but I can’t help myself. I’m a feeder.

And that leads to another phrase that, I hope, really is the family rule. It gets said whenever we’re having someone over for dinner, or thinking about having a party for no particular reason, or deciding if we really have the gumption to apply for another exchange student. It’s what I’ve been saying ever since my kids were little enough ask if a friend could come over to play. We say it often, and I hope we live the deeper meaning of it, too:  “The more the merrier.”

1 comment:

  1. I know a family or two whose rule is the one about just getting over/about to get something. Yikes.

    Ours is simple: no hurting of self--usually uttered after someone has rammed into the coffee table or sliced their finger on something from the "sharp things" drawer. I guess that's another rule: put sharp things in the "sharp things" drawer. It obviously makes rummaging through them much safer if they're gathered in a jumble. (Guess you can add us to the "everyone else has it figured out except us" households.)