Monday, April 16, 2007

Incommunicado

Hey, what's this? Oh, yeah: I have a blog! I should post in it or something, huh?

I had a really good conversation with my mother this evening. One of the reasons you couldn't pay me to go back to being a teenager (along with the acne, the hormones, the unrequited love, the ridiculous curfew, and the backstabbing faux friends) is that when I was younger I could not relate to my mother at all. As far as I was concerned, my mother was just one big walking list of What Not To Do When You Grow Up. And my job was to point out every single one of those items on that list to her every second of every day. Item One: Jiminy Christmas, the house is clean enough. Put the vacuum away.

Of course, now that I'm older and posting pictures of my yellowed bathroom grout on the internet it occurs to me that, hey! If you clean halfway decently once a week, you never get to yellowed grout in the first place. Maybe mom had a point all those years.

We were not talking about housecleaning tonight, though. We were talking about people who don't communicate. That is, we were talking about my boyfriend's family and my mother's family.

"Every time I think the (mother's maiden name)'s are bad about not communicating," I told her, "I just take a look at the boyfriend's family. They're worse."

"Oh, I know," my mother said. "I don't know how I dealt with it all those years. I don't want to think what I might have been like if I'd stayed there. You can't say anything! No one ever expresses any emotion--"

"Emotion, hell," I said, "The boyfriend's family won't even deal in facts if the facts are in any way unpleasant."

"Yes! What causes that?" my mother asked. I think she was mostly asking herself, but I'm a bigmouth, so I jumped right in with my pet theory.

"I honestly think it's some Midwestern farming family thing handed down through generations of Scandinavians and Germans," I replied, because I love blaming everything on ethnicity, provided it's some ethnicity I share in myself. It's so convenient, and at least half the time you're right. My mother's family is Scandinavian (and English, another ethnic group famous for forthrightness and high comfort levels with messy emotional matters). My boyfriend's family is German and Irish, but it's the German that predominates. I know this because I have never succeeding in enjoying a drink with any of them, save of course my boyfriend, who seems to have got all the Irish and nearly none of the German.

"But I mean, you can't even say stuff that's harmless, or I mean harmless to normal people, for fear it might hurt cousin so-and-so's feelings," I continued.

"Every time I go back there I get in trouble," my mother said, referring to her mother's house. "I mean every time, because of course your father, you know he just says whatever's on his mind, and then since I've been living with him, I've adapted to his ways, and so I'm--I'm not used to covering up anymore, either, and I forget myself and say what I think, and then everyone else is horrified."

"And it's always over something trivial. At least, with Mark's family. Stuff that wouldn't bother anyone else, but if you say it, it's 'Oh dear oh dear I just don't know--'"

"Just saying what you'd like to eat is a crime," my mother agreed.

We agreed that my father's family does communication better. The funny thing is I think this is one of the few times I have heard my mother come right out and say, "Your father's family has it right." My father's family is working-class Irish and Spanish. Between my grandfather the Spic and my grandmother the Mick, who had time to fuss over niceties? Who had time to obsess over what is and is not "nice to say?" They both worked like dogs. My father has no conception of "stay-at-home mom." He didn't grow up with one.

But because of this cut-to-the-chase communication style, when my grandmother says, "Can I fix you something? How 'bout an English (muffin)? It'd take me just a minute to fix you a nice English," you know she means it. She isn't going to fix you an English muffin and then sneak off to the deck to carp to your aunt that you're so tiring, the way you keep her running in the kitchen all the time, and why couldn't you have just been polite and declined the English muffin, the way the Nice People are brought up to do?

My dad's mom isn't going to do that to you. She's going to fix you a nice English muffin, and beam when you tell her it's good. Which you will do, because it will be awesome.

But that is exactly what my mother's mother would do--plus, bonus, the English muffin would be horrible, all not toasted enough and scarcely dabbled with ye-gods-margarine--and that is why every question my maternal grandmother asks catches you off-guard, turns you to jelly while you ponder every potential (negative) ramification of your answer.

Too many people I tell this to say "Oh not me, not me. I'd show her." Yeah? Bet me, motherfucker. I've seen strong people reduced to infants around my grandmother, even now, even these days, when she's on so many prescription narcotics it's a wonder she wakes up most mornings. Me? I "uh" and "um" around my mother's family a lot, stalling for time, trying to choose the least offensive answer--the nicest answer. They probably think I can't speak so good English.

"Well, of course, it's very sad, but I suppose it isn't Ilyka's fault, bless her poor heart. Her mother did marry a Spanish man."

Enough of them; it's your turn. What's your comfort zone of honesty in communication? Did you grow up with my mother's family, or my father's, or something in-between? I know my background and my preference; what's yours?

8 comments:

Sage said...

I've ranted about just the same think at my place over and over. It infuriates me. My family dinners were a time of arguing issues and ideas. Sex, religion and politics were the topics of choice. My guy's family's silent because his mom's a good christian so we mustn't say anything to upset her. I haven't yet found a topic I enjoy that is allowable. People sometimes discuss food we like, but otherwise we sit quietly.

Now when I go over for meal, I bring a book. I am just that rude (and a survivor).

gennimcmahon said...

Golly, the challenge here is how to answer without making it the length of a post in and of itself.

I grew up in a family characterized by explosive, terrifying arguments that punctuated silence. My father's family was violent and manipulative, creating an atmosphere in which one endeavored to avoid saying anything that might touch off a fight--but of course one never knew what innocent statement might be the trigger.

My mom's family is of the "everything is fine" ilk, so there is little or no discussion of anything important. My mother's mother does a lot of that passive aggressive stuff like you mentioned with the English muffin business. If she says to me, "Honey, don't make an extra trip, but if, in your travels, you come across a nice, cheap garden hose, would you pick one up for me?" It means, "Go right away and get me a hose or else I will know that you don't love me."

My MIL's weight is a major issue that is NEVER discussed. She had surgery 11 years ago and for some reason the aftermath included a 150 lb weight gain and some minor brain damage. This is completely unacknowledged in their family. No one EVER talks about her health, or the fact that she's apparently a very different person post surgery than she was prior. We talk a lot about the weather, though. And gas prices.

gennimcmahon said...

Oh, so, like, I should also answer your question...

I tend to be very outspoken where there are issues of social justice or feminism. I have a much harder time speaking up when it comes to family. I have to say, though, that I say "no" to my mom or my grandmother more than other family members. In the garden hose conversation, for example, I've learned to say, "Okay, well, I'll be going to the store in two days, and I'll buy the hose and bring it next week." Then it's up to her to say yes or no to that. I really try to keep it on my terms.

With my husband's family, it's far more complex. Each visit reminds me of my fear of speaking up, and then I'm mad at my husband because I tend to figure that I've got my own damn mother, and I'd like him to deal with his since mine isn't an easy one to begin with. Since I did get that hidden agenda sense of manners from my mom's side, I used to totally knock myself out when the inlaws visited, leaving no stone unturned from the meals to the new towels in the bathroom, to plans for activities. What I found out was that they're not so much looking at the soap dish saying, "Wow, genni really is thoughtful, look at that pretty soap!" So I stopped playing Hostess my way, and man, that took a lot of the stress away. It took maybe five years for me to figure out that when I say, "What would you like to do?" and they say, "Oh, nothing." They aren't saying, "We'd love for you to figure something out to entertain us, because we are your guests and you need to prove what a great hostess you are." They're saying, "Oh, nothing."

Face value. Amazing concept.

alphabitch said...

ooh, qood question. My experience is similar to yours, in some ways. Dad's (Irish Protestant + Swedish) family is way uptight, not emotional about much of anything (except politics and scrabble); they did not at all approve of my Mom's (Hungarian/German Catholic), who are Emotional About Everything. And Everything has to be picked apart and taken very very personally, especially with mom herself.

It's interesting that my parents were married for almost twenty years and I never heard them argue. Then they woke up one day and hated each other with a blind passion. I don't think they've so much as made eye contact in the twenty-some years since.

My dad's family couldn't say a kind thing if you paid them to do it. A compliment is always backhanded. "That haircut isn't as bad as the last one you had, did you go someplace new?" On reading my first front-page news article: "well, you spelled everything right, anyway."

I did, somehow, eventually learn that if you say what you mean in a direct, calm manner -- on both sides of the family -- they will look at you at first like you landed there from outer space, then slowly realize you mean no harm. But it's not pleasant, not at all.

The food is better at mom's family, though; I'll say that for them. And alcohol will be served.

Moebius Stripper said...

My family is Jewish, with some Israeli roots, and Canadian. Ever met an Israeli? Israelis, as a rule, have NO CONCEPT of what is and is not an appropriate thing to say. They have no filter. They'll introduce themselves, and five minutes after meeting you, they're asking you how much money you make, who you're voting for, and questions about your sex life that'd make a porn star blush. The religious ones, too, though they'll only do that in same-sex company. They don't hold back, to say the least. No one has ever accused an Israeli of not saying what they really meant.

Canadians, I'm sorry to say, apologize for damn near everything. Punch a Canadian in the gut, they'll apologize for getting in your way.

Having fingers in both of those pies, I find myself routinely putting my foot in my mouth and then apologizing for it. Ditto much of my family, though I'm probably the worst at saying things that I'd not have said had I spent five seconds thinking before speaking.

I do, for what it's worth, have a number of relatives (on Mom's side, all of them) who pull the English muffin thing, to the letter. A few years ago, after my grandmother's funeral, we were at my aunt's house - she was hosting the mourning - and there wasn't a whole lot of food that I could eat. But I wasn't going to starve to death, and honestly, I didn't mind. Nevertheless, my aunt went out of her way to prepare - excuse me, to GET THE MAID TO PREPARE - something for me to eat (after I'd spent no small amount of time insisting that this was unnecessary), and then complaining to everyone who would listen about how difficult I was.

ilyka said...

Nevertheless, my aunt went out of her way to prepare - excuse me, to GET THE MAID TO PREPARE - something for me to eat (after I'd spent no small amount of time insisting that this was unnecessary), and then complaining to everyone who would listen about how difficult I was.

Oh gads, exactly. You don't even have to do anything to cause some of this stuff, that's the part I forgot.

The last time I was back with my mom's folks was when my grandfather died. It was in March, it was during Lent, and on Friday a few family members ordered in buckets of chicken from Kentucky Fried--they're all Mormons, so no big deal for them. And really no big deal for me, because I'm no fan of greasy fried chicken anyhow, but I love biscuits.

So I'm sitting there minding my own, having a couple buttered biscuits, and can I just do that? Eat my biscuits in peace? Of course not. Some cousin or other has to offer me some chicken, I politely decline it, and BOOM--all eyes swivel to me and multiple voices in that horrible fake-concern tone want to know WHY WON'T I HAVE A PIECE OF CHICKEN? And then I have to explain to all the Mormons no-meat-on-Friday and then they all give each other that look, like, she always did have to be different.

Re: Israelis--forgive me for stooping to quoting The Moustache of Understanding, but I think he's the guy who said something like, two Israelis having a congenial conversation sound just like four furious people having an argument to the death. And you know, ever since I read that, I've wanted to meet some, because that's a lot more my kind of people than the bottled-up kind.

Bitey said...

When I read the line, "I had a really good conversation with my mother this evening," a chill ran down my spine. My mom and I don't have good conversations.

Your English muffin story struck a chord. When I was a kid, my mom would attempt a lemon meringue pie nearly every holiday, but it never came out. It always tasted good, but it was always so runny that it had to be spooned rather than sliced. We used to tease her about it, which she never seemed to mind. Well, a few months ago, I found a recipe that seemed to offer a solution to the runniness problem. I tried it out, and it was perfect. (The secret is that you have to cook the cornstarch mixture until it is "almost alarmingly thick" as one reviewer puts it.) My first impulse was to tell my mom about it: "Mom, I found this great recipe--you'll love it!" This was very quickly replaced with a sense of dread. Because, see, if I told mom about the recipe, she might say, "Wow, finally! Thanks!" That would probably be her initial reaction. There's a better-than-not chance, though, that this initial sweetness would be followed by: "Bitch." This would be delivered with a playful scowl, a jolly sideways cut of the eyes, and a forced giggle. She would be cursing me for showing her up or something. Much as I would like to share this little discovery with her, I don't trust her not to hurt me over it.

The best conversation I can remember having had with her in recent years happened just last night. She happened to call when I was a little drunk, so with my protective inhibitions somewhat lowered, I was able to talk to her as though we have a good relationship. We talked for an hour, which is unusual. I talked to her about my ex-husband and asked her opinion about my marriage to and divorce from him. About halfway through, she needed to call me back from another phone, so I dashed to the freezer for another shot of vodka: I had felt myself sobering up, and I didn't want to lose that imagined connection. Even through my tipsyness, I could feel that she was a little uncomfortable, but she kept it in check as best she could. She claims to want a better relationship with me, but I think what she really wants is for me to forget how angry and disappointed I am with how my childhood went.

Remembering that conversation this sober evening, I just know that someday soon, maybe the next time I talk to her, or maybe the time after that, she will find herself mocking me and my drunkenness. She'll make some eye-rolling reference to vodka, quickly followed by the forced giggle and a wave of her hand in front of her face, like she's slapping away gnats.

Sorry for getting off topic. I've been incommunicado myself lately, but I'll try to get back soon to answer the question.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

I think you know there weren't many filters on Molly's mouth growing up. ("What? You're the Outstanding 3rd Grader of the Year? Do I really have to go to that fucking school for this? Only the parents of the bad kids should have to go down there."

Like you, I didn't "get" my mom then. Now I admire her restraint.