The exasperated father turns to his adult sons and says, “Fine. Because I retired today, the two of you can physically wrestle here and now for the company and for the house. Winner takes all.” The mother, listening in disbelief, snorts her disapproval because she wants both privileged sons—who are living at home and unemployed—to take the reins of the family company. The feckless sons have never had to work for anything. They’ve never had to fight for a dream let alone a job or each other. Life just floats by comfortably as they sit on the couch and lift their noses in distain at employment that is beneath them. As one son put it, “I want a job that gets me frequently interviewed for my great acts of compassion.” Of course, in the meantime, he does nothing for anyone besides himself.
The preceding scenario is my interpretation of a play my husband and I saw over the weekend. “Crashing the Party” had us cringing and laughing throughout. Cringing because of parental foibles we ourselves have made in the name of love. Laughing because, well, of the parental foibles we ourselves have made in the name of love. I thought about the changes in parenting styles over the decades and wondered if we ever get it “right.”
My grandmother loved to tell me stories about her youth. During the spring and summer months Grandma’s parents and older brothers would work the fields. Before heading out the door, my Great-grandmother would instruct my grandmother, Elsie, and her little sister, Margaret, to make the beds, dust, and have lunch ready by noon. Lunch included peeling and cooking a large pot of potatoes. Keep in mind my grandmother and her sister were only about nine and five years old at the time. (Can you imagine telling a nine and five year old child to have lunch prepared for a crew of field hands in today’s world?) Peering through the crisp clean Victorian curtains, my grandmother would wait until the family was safely in the field before she and Margaret would sling blankets haphazardly over the beds, ignore the dusting, and bring out their dolls. Hours would pass in sublime imagination until the clock chimed once. It was the half-hour. Which half-hour? Scrambling to see the old grandfather clock, they panicked as they realized it was 11:30 and the crew would be back for lunch in thirty minutes.
The two little girls peeled potatoes as fast as they could and put the heavy pot on the woodstove. When Great-grandma arrived shortly before noon to check on lunch, the first thing she noticed was the pot with the barely simmering water. Well, that and my grandmother’s downcast eyes. Grandma watched with pounding heart as Great-grandma stuck a fork into the rock-hard potatoes. German swear-words sputtered from Great-grandma’s mouth as she turned her wrathful gaze upon the girls. Both Grandma and Margaret received cuffs to the head for their disobedience along with a lecture about pulling their weight in a working family. From there they were summoned to each of the bedrooms to see how well the beds were made. More cuffs to the heads, more lecturing. Great-grandma stood with arms crossed and watched them make the beds over and over until they did it to her standards.
The thing is, when my grandmother told me these stories there was no “poor me” attitude. If anything, she was trying to instill in me the sense of responsibility that comes with being in a family. Everyone must contribute, and everyone has abilities. As I grew up my great-grandmother was spoken of as a family legend. Her graciousness and generosity were recounted over and over by members of the community. I accepted the accolades as truth, and was proud that I was part of her flesh and blood. But something always felt off to me. The warm fuzzy statements about my great-grandmother contrasted sharply with the stern disciplinarian my grandmother described.
My memories of Great-grandmother are not velvety and loving. She always looked at me with disapproval and I didn’t know why. There exist no pictures of her warmly embracing me. Nor are there treasured memories of her sharing a cookie and telling a story. She lived to be over 100, and I’m glad she was in my life for a time, but I never got over my fear of her. Looking back now, I can well imagine she viewed me much the same way I viewed the play over the weekend. My life was drastically different than hers. As a child I helped prepare meals for the farm crews, but wasn’t held totally responsible. My mom and brothers did the milking, but I wasn’t expected to make the beds or do the housework while they were in the barn. Great-grandmother probably viewed me as a lazy child that would go nowhere and would possess little moral fiber, hence the looks of disapproval. On the other hand, Grandma and Margaret thought my parents expected too much hard work from me and my older brothers. They felt I should play with dolls more and clear fields less. And both ladies strongly disapproved of disciplinary cuffs to the head for any reason. Perspective is an experiential thing, I guess.