Thursday, July 28, 2011

Noodle Salad

Every family has a narrative. To paraphrase Tolstoy, the happy ones are really pretty boring.  Although I am skeptical they really exist, I have to remember Jack Nicholson's line in As Good as it Gets, in response to Greg Kinnear's comment that nobody really has a good family story.  Nicholson's character, Melvin, has obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he's insightful nonetheless. There are some nice stories, he responds: "stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad...Good times, noodle salad.  What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you're pissed that so many people had it good."

The noodle salad people, to my mind, just do a better job of throwing up a layer of spackle over the dirt that is family life.  There is blog I read sometimes, written by a young woman who seems like a very nice person.  I don't know her personally but do know some things about her family that perhaps I ought not.  Granted, everyone in a family has a different perspective. She writes a food blog that with each post includes happy memories associated with a particular dish, all metaphorical noodle salad.  Frequently I cringe at her characterization of her family. I'm not sure I do so because I believe it to be spackle or because I am deeply jealous.

A good friend of mine discovered, when she was around forty, an additional sibling, what the tabloids refer to as a love child.  The parents, biological, adoptive and innocent bystander, had passed away.  So all that was left were the six siblings, my friend being the youngest, to deal with the situation.  When she walked in and saw who she refers to as her "erstwhile sister", her reaction was immediate and visceral: "There was Daddy's face."  The family divided pretty much evenly, save for her, along the lines of  how they defined the family story.  Half of them, she said, thought Daddy was a saint for putting up with Mother's often irrational behavior.  The other half thought Mother had been devoted and did her best, that Daddy did what he wished, the rest of the world be damned.

I spent last week with my own nuclear family, a trio of three with our own special and refined dance, despite a one-time spouse and two offspring of my own. Years ago, a dear friend, also the youngest of many, told me she thought my own children could eventually serve as surrogate siblings: "They will see what happens in your family and tell you what they see," she said.  "This will give you an objective view of how the dynamic works." 

I hadn't been on the home turf for several years.  I'd forgotten.  It was much the same, yet taken up several notches. As when The Unit is here, there are at least two hours in a morning designated to reading the paper with little or no intellectual context but a lot of tsking about the state of the world.  Discussions about who eats what when and more than a little pressure on those who'd rather eat when hungry rather than on a schedule took up substantial parts of the day, as did unloading and reloading the dishwasher because interlopers (the kids) had done it wrong.  This particular issue actually occupied a good hour one evening after dinner, accompanied by a vigorous debate, fueled almost entirely by me. Then there were the post-dinner drinks talks, which generally involved a dissection of the mistakes all the neighbors and friends are making currently, followed by an inventory of my own transgressions against The Unit over the past decade and a half.  I could have traveled six blocks to my ex-husband's house to hear a list of my many faults, yet I'd gone 1,100 miles and filled out a Customs form.   Every night, the kids and I talked into the late hours about what had transpired.  This illuminated the circumstances of my own childhood in ways I'll be sorting out for a long time.

So for me, though noodle salad was served, there are no noodle salad days to document recently or otherwise. In the end I am jealous of the young woman I don't know but do, not for her reality but for her view of it.  My own father has his own static view of reality, one that is met with derision and bluster when challenged.  I'm envious of the certainty of both.  My own view is in line with my friend, she with the erstwhile sibling.  After her momentous family meeting, her last word was this: the truth, she said, lies somewhere in the middle.

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