A New Awareness

            I’ve always moaned about the travails of being stuck in between my siblings. My mother worshiped my older brother, thought he could do no wrong. That was partly due to how disappointed my father was in having a son who was not athletic and had no aptitude for mechanics. My brother was not the child my father would have chosen. Unfortunately, this led to many incidents in which my brother was forced to spend hours in the garage, hands covered in grease, not enjoying what he was doing and getting yelled at for being incompetent.

            My brother took his frustrations out on me. He teased me constantly, called me offensive names, and when no one was looking, pinched or kicked or punched me, leaving huge bruises on my arms, legs and abdomen.

            We had a complicated relationship. I loved sports and would beg my brother to play. Badminton, whiffle ball, sledding, basketball, it made no difference to me. I picked up any sport quite quickly, and so as soon as I was consistently beating him, he found ways to torture me during play. He’d knock me down, through the ball so hard it bruised my palm, dunk me under the water, or let all the air out of my bicycle tires.

            Even so, when it was time to play, I’d look toward my brother. For one, we were intellectual equals. We enjoyed complicated strategy games that took days to solve. This meant board games as well as complex was games with dark green army men fighting beneath a sheet tent.

            My relationship with my younger sister was always rocky. My mother clearly felt a need to shelter her. This included making me take the blame for anything my sister did or did not do, such as cleaning her half of the room or making her bed. It was my fault if she made a mess anywhere in the house. This led to some interesting behaviors on my part.

            One time when I was particularly vexed at her, I asked Mom is my sister could have chocolate pudding, knowing that she’d have to eat it outside because she always made a mess of herself. Not satisfied with the low-level mess my sister would make, I helped make it bigger and better.

            I told her to stick her fingers in the container and rub the pudding down her legs and arms. All over her face and neck, and even in her hair. When it was gone, I went into the house to get my mom, expecting my sister to get the beating I would have received.

            Not so. My mom got the Polaroid camera and took a picture, enshrining forever the chocolate-mess that was my sister. And to make things worse, my mom laughed. She praised my sister for being so inventive, then commanded me to give her a bath.

            Over the years I was blamed for many things that I did not do. My brother accused me of flirting with his friends, none of whom had the brains to interest me. My sister said I’d kicked her and pinched her, which I hadn’t done.

            Those were some of the most miserable years of my life.

            The torture ended when I left home for college.

            I had no escaped my brother, however, as my parents would only let me go to the same college he had chosen. And then they empowered him to watch over me, control me, tell me what to do.

            They had not understood how clever I really was and how easily I could fool my brother. I did need his assistance to shop for food and necessities, and I did become a Little Sister to his fraternity, but beyond that, I led my own life. It was my first taste of freedom and I loved it.

            Many years later I learned about middle-child-syndrome. The term defined exactly how I felt. It also helped me understand why I took things to hard and why I kept so much of me locked inside.

            I used to dream of what it would be like to be an only child, and it seemed heavenly.

            Recently I heard a talk-show host talking about how lonely it was being an only child, and that with no siblings to take the brunt of the anger, he was the sole focus of every bit of torture his family could improvise.

            That gave me a new perspective. While I clearly was the target most of the time, my older brother was a bit of a cushion from my dad’s anger and disappointment. Because my mother felt a need to hover over my younger sister, it gave me a certain degree of freedom.

            This was a profound revelation. Only children have no one to blame if something gets broken or a task is left undone. Only children are the sole focus of parental energy. Only children, when not allowed outside as I was, have no where to go to get away from those prying eyes.

            I am now going to have to reevaluate my perspective on being a middle child. Perhaps it wasn’t as awful as I thought, or perhaps being alone could have been substantially worse.

            It’s interesting to ponder.

A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.