Family Values By Laurel-Rain Snow
Friday, July 09, 2010
Not rated by the Author.
A young woman returns home for the holidays, only to find a disturbing scenario unfolding...
They huddle around the table like so many crows perched on a fence, all in their own little worlds. At the head of the table and assuming his rightful role as patriarch, Father dictates the flow of the platters, gesticulating and grunting, but otherwise ignoring the assembled family members. To his left, the mother of the four adult children watches and waits, assuming her role of keeping glasses of water filled and platters of food replenished.
The eldest son, Irving, has taken up his position at the opposite end of the table, while, on his left, his sister Skye’s children sit across from their mother, their Aunt Sara, their Uncle Sidney, and their grandmother (when she isn’t hopping up and down to serve!). Back home after two years away filling in for professors on sabbaticals—one in Canada and another in Hawaii—he feels like the conquering hero in some ways. Resting on his laurels and sitting back to receive the long-awaited kudos for his prestigious new job in Southern California…a permanent professorial position this time. Now Irving Franklin is basking in the holiday ambience, just waiting for the long-anticipated praise from his parents and siblings for his accomplishments. After all, he has a Ph.D., the first family member to earn post-graduate degrees.
He feels mildly disappointed that Skye, the older of his two sisters and the mother of those four rather annoying children, has seemed so underwhelmed by his accomplishments. Not that she has done anything overt, exactly. She simply nods and smiles distantly and listens only half-attentively as he describes the past two years. But then again, what can one expect from a hippie! He feels a sudden wave of disgust as he thinks about how she is still stuck in that whole sixties thing…After all, it is 1979, and the eighties are right around the corner.
Skye, who was born Sabrina Katherine, took on this alternative name a few years back. She spent three or four years living in a commune, after her divorce from the father of her two oldest children, boys with the trendy names of Lance and Heath. And while up in Northern California, she gave birth to the younger two. Nobody talks about who their father or fathers might be, or why Skye has suddenly moved to the Central Valley and taken up what passes for a profession….social work. Although, now that Irving thinks about it, she did earn a degree in psychology before chucking her marriage and the conventional life to hang out with those rabble-rousers. He remembers vividly the time he spent in the National Guard, in the sixties, and he still sees instant replays in his mind, like flashbacks. He feels angrier when he thinks about her blithe disregard for the law. And how, at almost thirty, she should have moved beyond all of that adolescent fervor.
She is addressing him now, asking him a question about his new post. He turns his gaze upon her, warming up to the anticipated attention. “So, are you planning to stay on indefinitely down south? Or is this another temporary gig?” She sounds like a chirping bird, with her false cheeriness.
He feels a surge of annoyance, like bile rising upwards, an all-too-familiar sensation lately. Hadn’t he just explained all of that earlier? Wasn’t she listening? But before he can answer, one of her brats waves his hands around, blubbering about something-or-other in a rather loud and demanding voice, and she diverts her attention to him. “Dylan,” she speaks in a soft, placating tone, which grates on him, for some unknown reason. “Use your words,” she continues, as if to elicit something other than grunts from the child.
“More butter, please,” the three-year-old somehow manages, but his voice has a demanding, whiny quality. Skye doesn’t seem to notice this, choosing instead to view his verbal command as some kind of accomplishment. She claps her hands, and then, turning toward Father, patiently waits for him to respond, since the butter is at his end of the table. But George Franklin, Patriarch Extraordinaire, is shoveling in his food, not heeding anything or anyone around him, and doesn’t hear the request. Skye repeats Dylan’s entreaty, with a slight edge to her voice, adding, in what must, in her book, pass for humor: “Funny how everything coagulates at that end of the table.” Her voice drips with sarcasm.
Their father looks up then, a frown creasing his brow, while his face darkens.
And Irving, as if he’s suddenly received a signal of some kind, lifts up his own hand against whatever Father might be going to do…Maybe it’s a protective shield, of sorts…But as his gaze sweeps over the pink and white faces of the four tow-headed kids, those leeches of Skye’s, something unexpected happens. He suddenly feels the fomenting of a rage that surely has been roiling around underneath for awhile, but the total magnitude of its force as it erupts surprises even Irving.
“Skye, your kids are such brats! Have you ever even bothered to try and teach them manners, or the concept of waiting their turn patiently? They whine and throw tantrums, like they’re the center of the universe, expecting everyone to serve them…especially that one,” pointing dramatically at Dylan, who is now cowering before his uncle, whose loud explosion has sent shock waves around the room. And continuing, he aims his venom on Skye herself: “But then again, you’re no kind of role model, are you? What passes for parenthood with you would be neglect in most circles.”
By now Irving is standing, waving his arms, and still holding his fork in one hand; he has apparently forgotten it, because when it flies across the room, landing smack dab in Dylan’s lap, he looks as shocked as everyone else. But the sheer force of his rage and the rant he has now begun take on a life of their own. The momentum propels him forward, the force of his tirade now directed toward Skye: “I guess they learned this from you, Skye, since you’ve done nothing your whole life except take, take, take! Well, here, Skye, why don’t you and your brats take this!” And then, as if for good measure, he hurls the dish of mashed potatoes toward her, followed by the cranberry sauce. And hisses: “You’re nothing but a spoiled brat, and all my life I’ve had to watch you pout, and listen to you crying and whimpering over this and that, while the rest of us had to try and make you feel better. You’re nothing but a bitch! A goddamned bitch!”
Zoe, the two-year-old, crying hysterically, flies around the table and into her mother’s lap.
Lance and Heath follow, stoical expressions on their faces, as they form a barricade of sorts around their mother’s chair, grasping the back and seemingly enfolding her with a protective blockade. And Dylan, who has, up until now, been sitting there staring, his thumb in his mouth, slides off his chair and runs around to hide behind his older brothers.
Skye is facing Irving now, her mouth agape. She looks just like an idiot, he thinks idly. And he pauses in his sputtering speech, suddenly feeling oddly disoriented as he sinks abruptly into his chair, almost stunned as the matriarch Ruth Franklin stands up, gasping and clutching her mouth, and whimpering: “Oh, Irving, watch your language!” Followed by a torrent of tears.
Father stumbles to his feet, too, fastening his glare upon both Irving and Skye. His looming presence brings an end to the whole tirade. But Irving throws down his napkin, shoves his plate aside, and stomps out of the room and out the back door.
In his wake, the assembled cast of characters stares dumbfounded at the overturned bowl of potatoes and the stain of the cranberry sauce congealing on the white linen tablecloth along with the spreading liquid from Irving’s glass of water, tipped over at some point in the fracas.
Skye clutches her children close, anxiously checking them all out, taking their emotional temperature.
But George Franklin, patriarch, returns to his plate, resuming his primary focus of shoveling in his food, while muttering under his breath; and on the sidelines, the matriarch, Ruth Franklin, silently cleans up the wreckage, her lips pursed and her brow puckered, while short little sobs escape like tiny hiccups.
They are scrunched up in the back seats of Skye’s VW bus, headed back to Fresno, none of them uttering a word. After Uncle Irving “exploded,” as Lance, the eight-year-old has labeled the event for the younger ones, they watched as their mother gathered their things together quickly, loading them silently into the back of the bus. She said a terse good-bye to her parents and remaining siblings, and barely waiting for the engine to warm up, roared out of there.
They see Skye watching them in the rear view mirror, checking on them, making sure they’re settled in. Then she turns on the car radio. She hums along to a country song, and before they even reach the freeway headed south, they can tell from her attitude that she’s pretending that none of it even happened. For now, at least. They all know when to leave their mother alone and when to push. They feel a little guilty now, about the mess back at their grandparents’ house. Especially since their mother was so happy about going, and mainly because of Uncle Irving. If he hadn’t been coming, she would have passed on this Thanksgiving at the old homestead. Their mother always talked about her brother Irving like he was some god or something; she totally looked up to him as someone almost larger than life…a Superhero, maybe. And she was really psyched about seeing him again, since it’d been several years since they last saw each other.
Dylan and Zoe have never met their Uncle Irving until now.
Lance and Heath can barely remember him. Their blurred memories were of a big man with a beard covering his blunt jaw and dark-rimmed glasses hiding the upper half of his face. And lots of bushy light brown hair. So they were completely surprised to see him again, with neatly trimmed hair, no beard, and wire-rimmed glasses. They didn’t even recognize him at first. And he hardly said two words to them up until that whole ugly thing at dinner.
Halfway home, Dylan and Zoe fall asleep, and relieved, Lance glances over at Heath, who is six, and still a little kid himself. But the two of them have the job of being the big kids, watching out for the little ones. They exchange a look. They know that their little brother and sister are going to have nightmares about all of this. For some reason, those two seem to get upset over the littlest thing. And today’s explosion by Uncle Irving would be the scariest thing they’ve seen in awhile.
Skye hums along with the country tune, pretending that she is already back home in her apartment. She visualizes the space, feeling tingly all over, as she thinks about the recent blending of her things and her boyfriend Greg’s things—his contributions include the stereo system, some of the artwork, and a glassed in cabinet that now contains their assorted bottles of booze. Above the cabinet, they have grouped an asymmetrical arrangement of some of Greg’s black and white photos, depicting surreal images that add an artsy flavor to the room.
She has brought to the mix her old sofa bed from her first marriage. She had it in storage during her communal years, so except for the deep accumulation of dust from years in storage, it’s almost as good as new. Its rusty background patterned with dark brown palm fronds reminds her of jungle images. She placed two prints of a lion and a tiger above it, standing back and thinking that it all added up to just the right ambience. Two rust-colored velour wing-backed chairs flank an antique ice cream table, also leftovers from her marriage.
As she drives, she thinks about how surprised Greg will be when they come home early. They were planning to stay until Sunday, but after this disastrous Thanksgiving Day family get-together, here they are traveling back late Thursday night. She thinks about him waiting in the apartment, not expecting her for days, and she hugs herself, imagining him taking her into his arms tonight. It almost makes the whole fiasco with her brother worth it all. This unexpected treat of spending the whole long weekend with Greg. She pictures how happy he’ll be when she walks through the door.
By the time they take the first freeway exit into Fresno, Skye’s spirits are high. She has also, furtively, taken a few hits off of a joint, once she’s made sure that the kids are all asleep. By the time she pulls into the parking space at her apartment, she is totally mellow.
“Hey, there, Lance, Heath…we’re home,” she whispers, and they immediately fall into their assigned roles, each of them carrying one of the younger children as they struggle up the stairs to their second-floor apartment.
Humming softly to herself, Skye lugs their bags up the stairs and turns the key in the lock. She’s poised to greet Greg, her mouth already open, ready with her salutation….but the house is completely dark. Well, maybe he’s already asleep, she thinks, heading down the hallway and gesturing for Lance and Heath to settle the younger children in their rooms. She glances only cursorily toward the two bedrooms on her right—Dylan and Zoe have the first one and Lance and Heath, the second—and keeps wending her way on back to the master bedroom, her heartbeat thudding in her chest in anticipation of Greg’s presence.
Opening the door softly so as not to startle him, she stares toward the bed. But it is still smoothly made, with the red and black Egyptian patterned comforter and matching shams covering the coordinated sheets. She hides her disappointment, tossing the bags aside, and reluctantly pokes her head into the kids’ rooms, checking them, noticing that Lance and Heath have already tucked them in. Like an afterthought, she pats them each on the back. She feels something, then—regret? a pang of guilt?—as she stares at their curled up bodies, their blond hair, those dark eyelashes sweeping their cheeks. She stuffs the feeling down.
She tiptoes back down the hall toward the living room, sinking down onto her rust patterned sofa, tucking her feet up under her; she stares at the blank screen of the TV as if trying to make some kind of major decision. She swings her gaze around the rooms, from the living room to the dining nook and tiny kitchen, and out through that sliding glass door to the terrace, and even though it’s cold outside tonight, she decides to go out there. She eases down onto one of the wicker chairs and lights a cigarette.
And now, finally, she allows her feelings to rise up from the pit of her stomach.
Skye Franklin looks back on her life, wondering how she ended up here.
In many ways, today’s family melodrama was familiar, almost a recurring theme from childhood. But usually it was Father who exploded, spewing venom all around. Not Irving. No, she and Irving clung together, like drowning rats on a sinking ship, the victims in the piece. So when was it exactly that Irving took on Father’s role? And why? She tries to analyze her brother’s behavior. She’s blindsided, because, of all her family members, she would have said that she and Irving were the closest. She remembers times in their childhood when they held each other while their father ranted and raved, and while their mother stood back, unable to do anything at all. They’d been the “two of us against the world.”
But once they’d gone their separate ways in adulthood, especially after Irving finished his undergraduate degree and went to Oregon State University for his master’s, and then his Ph.D., the two of them had crossed paths only occasionally. Which was why she’d been so excited about seeing him today.
She strained her brain, trying to recall the last time they spoke. Had something happened?
But, for the life of her, she couldn’t think of any reason for his resentments. Had he truly felt this way all these years, only pretending to be her ally? And anyway, he had it all wrong about their childhood…There was no way that she’d been the favorite child, much less the spoiled one. Her memories flashed on them both receiving equally horrible punishments for minor infractions. So what did he mean, anyway?
She recalls all the beatings they’ve each endured, especially the one time, when Irving came home late from a date…That was horrible! She can still see the blood streaming from Irving’s nose.
But she also remembers the time their father hit her repeatedly until her mouth was bruised and swollen, one time after she was supposed to be coming home from a church event with Irving and she’d ditched her brother, going off with a boy. Did Irving get in trouble that time, too? She can’t recall. But now that she thinks about it, Father had a way of punishing her when nobody else was around. Irving probably never even knew about all the times that she’d gotten it. Another of their family secrets.
She has finished smoking the pack of cigarettes and tiptoes inside to search for another…But just as she’s pulling out the drawer, the door opens. And Greg comes in. He stops dead in his tracks, not expecting to see her, of course; but then, he comes over and they hug. And kiss.
“Umm. Delicious,” he murmurs, slipping his hand under her sweater and cupping her breast. And then, standing back, he studies her face. “What happened? Change of plans?”
And then she allows her feelings to well up from that hidden place inside. And as she tells the dramatic story of her Thanksgiving Day, the tears course down her cheeks and she sighs at the tenderness Greg shows her, listening, patting her back, and whispering: “It’s okay, baby, it’ll be okay.”
And afterwards, she slides into his arms as if she’s come home.
After the emotionally exhausting weekend, Skye is glad to be back at work. She started this social work job over a year ago and thinks she’s finally found her calling. When she meets the dysfunctional families, she feels a connection. Probably because she understands the way they think.
She and Greg work in the same office and drive to work together today. They drop the kids off at school and day care, both eyeing the robotic way they trudge toward their destinations.
“How do you think they are?” She turns toward him, a worry line creasing her forehead.
“They’ll be okay,” he reassures her with a confidence she thinks is overly optimistic. What does he know, anyway? He had a horrible childhood, too. How can anyone really assess the damage in a situation like this, with no role models of a better way? Except, of course, for the ones in their textbooks.
But she manages to get through the day. And the next. And finally, the weeks have turned over and brought them to the verge of the second major holiday of the year. And her mother calls, asking her for Christmas dinner. As if nothing untoward happened just weeks ago. Skye equivocates, saying she’ll have to get back to her.
For some reason, Skye is thinking a lot about the past and her time in the commune. She fled from her marriage, her two kids in tow, seeking a different life. Up in Northern California, she thinks she’s found herself. And while she struggles at first, with trust issues, etc., she finally settles in. And then she gets pregnant with Dylan. And she doesn’t know which of the guys is the father.
Freaked out by it, she considers leaving. But she can’t make up her mind. And, in the end, not deciding is a kind of decision. It’s a long time before she finally leaves, and by then, she has Zoe too.
And then one day, something happens that helps turn things around.
It’s an ordinary day, with all the usual communal chores. Lance and Heath are working outside in the garden and she’s feeding the little ones their breakfast. Someone new pulls up outside, and while she watches the others greet them, bringing them into the fold and reiterating the mantra, something inside her snaps. She feels herself stepping outside the picture, as if she’s looking down on it all. She hears the words, the patronizing tones, as if from a distance, and it all sounds so phony. And for the first time, she realizes that she doesn’t believe any of it anymore. And something clicks.
Nothing dramatic. Just a moving into another phase of awareness. And while she wants nothing to do with the life she’d known, in her childhood, or in her marriage, she also pulls away from the communal life. She suddenly needs her privacy and longs to make her own independent choices, without group consensus.
And that’s how she finds herself driving south, ending up in the Central Valley. And like someone who is rediscovering old patterns and skills, like a sleepwalker, she flips the pages of the newspaper, studying the Classifieds. She has a little money from her divorce settlement, tucked away, useless until now. She rents the apartment. She applies for jobs. And finally, at long last, begins something that resembles a career and a life.
But she knows she hasn’t come full circle. The life she now leads bears no resemblance to the life of her childhood, or the life during her marriage. She thinks it’s a perfect formation of a life that meets her individual needs while providing a sane structure for her kids. Her mind occasionally flashes on Irving’s lashing out, his accusations about her children’s behavior. And she thinks that, in her effort to move away from the tyranny of her father’s house, she may have gone overboard in the opposite direction.
But then she pushes that thought aside. Dismissing it.
In the end, she doesn’t go home for Christmas. She hears later, when her mother phones after the first of the year, that Irving was there. And how disappointed he was to have missed out on seeing Skye and her family. She hears a faint tinge of criticism in her mother’s voice, and for a moment, the old familiar guilt rears its ugly head.
But Skye ends the conversation, pushes the thought aside, and gets on with her life.
When her sister Sara calls several months later, in April, Skye is luxuriating in the unfolding of the spring, the very essence of new beginnings. All day today, she’d been outdoors, riding her bike, working in the little terrace garden inhaling the floral scents, and now her eyes fall upon the bouquet of flowers from Greg that make a springy centerpiece for her table. She is studying the petals as she listens to Sara’s soft tones, as if from a distance….And then she hears the catch in her voice. That something she didn’t notice at first. She sits up sharply, pushing her back against the chair, as if stiffening against an assault.
“What did you say, Sara?” Sharp intake of breath and a clutching of her gut as she hears the words, but not yet taking them in.
“Irving is dead.” Sara repeats the words flatly, since she has had time to dissociate herself from the horror of it all. “He was hiking up in the mountains, some kind of field studies with his students. He fell—quite a long distance, I guess—and they didn’t even find him for awhile. But he didn’t make it.”
Somehow Skye has stopped listening or hearing and there’s a roaring sound in her ears.
Only later, much later, does she put together all the details, going through the necessary motions; she makes time to go north, to the family home, to play out the final ritual in her brother’s all-too-short existence…The funeral. And through everything, as her mind replays the details of the horrific plunge to his death to the final good-bye, Skye’s mind skips along on another track, playing its own somber tune, a litany of what-ifs, and if-onlies.
Of course, nobody says anything about the last time Skye saw Irving. Typical family denial, she knows. As if none of it had happened at all. And she, looking back, remembers that she got a short note from Irving after the first of the year, apologizing…And she responded, thankfully, brushing everything aside, offering words of appeasement. So, for all intents and purposes, they’d made their peace. Right?
So why does she still feel that nagging, gaping hole inside, and why does she suddenly realize that she and Irving lived two separate and very distinct childhood experiences?
And then, of course, it hits her. They hadn’t been “the two of us against them” at all. Like isolated little soldiers in their individual foxholes, they suffered alone, each of them. And, she guesses now, that was the whole method to their father’s madness. By dividing them, he could conquer. Through isolation, he could control and dominate.
And just like Irving on that Thanksgiving Day, feeling bereft of the family love and warmth that he continued to seek, and perceiving that somehow the others had achieved it, he’d lashed out. And assumed the role of the aggressor, identifying with him, their father. Taking on his role.
While she, Skye, dealing with the absence of the family connections in her own way, has defied the traditional family completely, as if by doing so, she can eliminate the need for that very love and warmth. She can find it in a hundred other places…through her friends, through her protests, through her new work, and now, finally, through her lover.
And whenever she still feels empty inside, she fills the hole with drugs and alcohol.
But now as she stares at the faces circled around Irving’s casket, she feels this hot rage welling up, almost as if she’s taken over where Irving left off on Thanksgiving. Why does she feel the urge to lash out, flail about, and destroy something or someone? As if she must now, as the eldest living child, assume Irving’s identity, taking on the surfeit of rage he left behind.
She thinks about legacies for months afterward. First, the normal kind, the legal kind, with this or that belonging going to one or another of the remaining family members. And then, finally, the emotional detritus left over from an unfinished life, the legacy of anger and rage hiding under an outwardly compliant façade, just waiting to make itself known.
Skye considers the anger and how she can make it work for her. She sees herself as a warrior princess, out to right all the wrongs. She can turn this rage into positive action, she can be an advocate for a family free of secrets, lies and betrayals. Maybe she can only achieve this on her own if she distances herself, physically and emotionally, from her dysfunctional birth family.
She knows she’ll make mistakes of her own, with her new family, this one she has created with her children and her man. But she doesn’t have to repeat the past. And as she considers this, mulling it over in her mind, she feels an odd sense of completion, of closure.