Family is a funhouse.
You get off the plane or train as the person you know yourself to be: intelligent, competent, even accomplished and, above all, adult.
You walk into your parents’ house and you see, immediately, right there in the kitchen window, a shorter, wider or bow-legged or knock-kneed or acne-covered kid with your eyes and a bad attitude.
Your sister reaches for a banana.
You hear yourself snarl, “I wanted that.” And you don’t even like bananas.
You get a grip and offer to make coffee for everyone. You spill coffee grounds all over the floor. Your older brother laughs and there you are, a thirty-five year old executive, to whom forty people report every day, and you’re hiding in the bathroom to cry.
My brother-in-law recently beat his older brother , my husband, in ping-pong. He crowed about that game for a week. My husband maintained an unflappable and infuriating older-brother attitude about the whole thing. Their combined age is 107.
It’s a wonder anyone goes home— and not everyone does.
For some people, it’s not just the powerful pull of the past that gets them worked up—it’s their family’s unwillingness to see them as adults. I have seen pediatricians patted on the head and told to let Dad handle little Jimmy’s kitchen accident and seen lawyers ignored as Uncle Archie boldly rewrites the Constitution in a family argument. For some families, the role you played as a child was more important than you realized…to others. For your mother, you may have been her cuddly comfort during bad times; she may not tolerate a reasonable adult who doesn’t end every disagreement with a snuggle on the couch and a pint of ice cream. For your father, you may have been the rebellious teen (like himself) that he still wants to tussle with. And for your siblings—you were probably a number of people (best pal, worst rival, tattletale, punching bag, baby doll, measuring stick) and if they themselves have trouble moving on, they’re not going to let you stroll into adulthood, without making a major effort to pull you back. The crybaby is tougher, the bully is gentler, the princess works like a dog , and the man who slaved over his Chevy and his lawn tractor, now rides a bicycle everywhere and chides you for not being green enough—the other trick of the funhouse is managing to seeing others as they are now.
But, because life itself is pretty funny–no sooner have you learned to keep your head high and your ego intact, walking around the edge of the pit of regression, the funhouse mirrors flip over and instead of becoming your past, you become your future.
I swallow my deep annoyance at my mother for pushing my bangs off my forehead (“Your beautiful face,” she always said. She also said, less endearingly, “Are you wearing your hair that way?” — a question only a meta-existential philosopher or a mother could ask.)) because, after all, she’s an old, fond lady and even if the ritual of fixing my hair does suggest that I don’t wear my hair attractively, it’s not the end of the world, she means well, I know I look good, blah blah. I talk myself down and then, as if my hands have a life of their own, I find myself pushing my daughter’s bangs forward, to make her haircut more pleasing to me. She understands perfectly well what I’m doing and she is, understandably, offended. I lie and say that I wasn’t really altering her hairstyle. (Really? What other explanation is there? Fixing her halo?). She takes pity on me, forgiving me while readjusting her hair.
My father’s blunt assessments and my mother’s ,loving worry now pop out of my mouths like little toads of yesteryear.