When I was a young adult my much older brother physically attacked me at our parents’ house at Thanksgiving. The “reason” is flimsy and bizarre and not worth typing. The event devolved into a huge family fight involving my many siblings (and parents) that had very little, if anything to do with me. Christmas was on its way. My mother made a big point of saying ALL her children were welcome at her home. I knew I was supposed to fall in line as if the incident had never happened and I also knew my pecking order in the family was such that my welfare wasn’t of great concern but there was no way I was sitting down to Christmas dinner with my brother.
This happened many years ago. All the kids in my family were grown but we still congregated with our relatives at out-of-state family reunions. One year the big reunion on our mother’s side had been held at a park but in the evening the group continued the festivities at one of my cousin’s homes. People had begun telling jokes. My brother, in an animated fashion, told a detailed, moderately racy joke that was greeted with much laughter after its punchline.
My sister, on the other hand, told a short joke:
“Why is American beer like having sex in a canoe?”
“Because it’s fucking close to water.”
This joke didn’t go over quite so well. Perhaps because my sister had failed to think about the fact that we were literally in a town that made an American beer, one much beloved by the locals.
Recently I’ve seen two different promotions featuring the Monopoly® man, the older mustachioed gentlemen with the top hat and cane. In the last month or so, his image has been everywhere and on top of that, I needed to come up with his formal, original name for a crossword answer. It turned out to be “Rich Uncle Penny Bags.” Rich Uncle Penny Bags? What kind of name is that?? I’ve heard of “Money Bags” but Penny Bags doesn’t make him sound all that rich.
Seeing his image takes me back to childhood memories and how much I loved playing the game with my brothers & sisters. There were times, when I was very young, we played as a whole family. In some instances, my slightly older sister and I were made to play as one person. We didn’t argue; it was basically a condition of getting to play with the older ones. I remember one time in particular, when my sister and I as our little tag team were losing and about to be eliminated from the game, so one of my older brothers was good enough to try to sneak money to us in his shoe under the table (he had long legs). As you might imagine, this was a clumsy affair that the others were quickly wise to, especially as my brother sunk lower and lower on his side of the table.
I’ve also been reminded that I found the Monopoly® Man a bit unsettling. He wasn’t exactly kid-friendly and he didn’t look like any of MY uncles. On closer examination today, I see that he’s an odd choice, especially as a mascot for what has long been largely a children’s game. It’s something in the eyes, at least in one characterization where he has these large, dead-fish eyes (there’s more than one version of him). If he’s not exactly sinister, he’s shifty-looking. I can see why I didn’t exactly warm to him. He looked like he was up to no good.
Interesting side note from Wikipedia: The character initially appeared on the first game produced in 1936 but the artist who rendered him remained anonymous until 2013 when his granddaughter came forward to identify him as Dan Fox. That’s a long time for a culturally iconic image to go uncredited.
I realize now also that Monopoly is a game of capitalism, which was entirely wasted on me as a child (I sure didn’t know the actual meaning of the word “monopoly” either). I didn’t know what capitalism was; it was just a fun game. Buying property and building houses was utter fiction to me (sadly still is). I really didn’t like ending up in “jail” but that too and the game’s white collar crimes that led to it meant nothing in my limited experience. My monetary knowledge was enough that I understood fine the accumulation of the fake money; I delighted in collecting rent when other players landed on my property. The railroads were especially desirable. I thought trains were terribly exciting (I still have a fondness for them) even if my experiences were largely limited to seeing trains or waiting at train crossings on the proverbial road trips to Grandma’s house in the country.
I had an idea a long time ago I never did which was to get a Monolopy® board and hang it on the wall as decoration. I wouldn’t go buy a new one; it’d have to be a yard sale or thrift store find. It’s funny to me. Basically, my favorite childhood game features a theme which is largely the antithesis of things I value as an adult – nobody ever accuses me of being money-hungry or any stripe of capitalist. I still like the little dog, though, and the hat. Those game pieces were a piece of brilliance.
When I wrote my blog entry about the post office the other day I remembered something from years ago. My older brother had become a mail carrier. After he’d been in the job a little while, I happened to see an envelope he’d addressed for his own purposes. The print size looked like this:
This was NOT how my brother would have addressed a letter prior to being employed by the Post Office. I’m telling you the writing was comically large. I didn’t say anything about it because he was almost certain not to appreciate any commentary but I inwardly mused that I’d had no idea mail carriers could be so touchy about the public’s letter-addressing skills!
Many years later I had the opportunity to see another envelope addressed by my brother. The print size was back to normal-people standards.
I’ve got a couple different thoughts on my mind today. I think there’s a theme tying them together – at least I hope there is, because thinking about something and writing it are not the same thing. Ideas that seem connected in mind are not always so connected once put to “paper.” That being said, let’s see how this works out.
I am one of the youngest children from a large, middle-class family. I grew up thinking we were poor but that had a lot to do with what I was both told and experienced firsthand, and moreover I was a naive child (or is that redundant?) and knew little of the world. No doubt “poor” is a relative concept, but a child’s perception has everything to do with what they personally experience. Once those ideas are formed, they become very hard, sometimes impossible, to shake. My childhood view was tiny and ill-informed, but my response nonetheless, was to take everything to heart.
To house their growing family, my parents built their own home before I was born. Later, when other children, from school or friends, learned where we lived, they said in so many words that my family was well-off, i.e., “you live on the rich street.” This was news to me. I didn’t have much, and a lot of what I did have, was shared. My clothes were hand-me-downs from older sisters and cousins, or home-made. One pair of “good” shoes for school and church, one pair of play shoes. Toys came on Christmas and birthdays and often those were shared. I had to “share” a used bicycle, although later I did get one of my own. There was one phone, one family TV. We had a big yard to play in (which I loved), but the house itself was not fancy or especially well-maintained. For years there was a curtain, which was probably an old drop cloth, instead of a door on the second bathroom in the unfinished basement. The rooms were cold and drafty. The basement flooded. There was a concrete side porch with no railing on it for years, where a misstep could have pitched a child off the second story to the concrete walk or patio below. I was frightened any time I had to go out there. Things didn’t get fixed, or got fixed slowly.
I only could have what food was served to me; I could never just “help myself” and was shocked times when I saw one of my older brothers do so without repercussion. The rule at the dinner table was that my father got second portions, not the kids. During the day, when I said I was hungry, my mother would either tell me I was not hungry, or dinner was in “2 hours” or, nonsensically:
“Have a glass of milk, it’s the best food for you.”
(Now, decades later, I continue to thrill at the ability to walk over to the refrigerator or pantry and take out what I want and eat it. Not only that, but I can eat it in the living room, or while watching TV, or seasonally, outside. I’m not being sarcastic either. Despite the fact I’ve been on my own for years, I still relish these pleasures.)
We were all sent to parochial school for our first 8 grades, but I don’t have a lot good to say about the quality of the teaching or how children were treated. The school, despite charging tuition, was poorly supplied and used out-of-date texts. Many of the teachers were hateful and abusive even (I never got hit but saw classmates on the receiving end), and frankly, I was often afraid. My point being, I never saw this private school as any kind of privilege. It was a trial to endure, and given how a child experiences time, I thought it would never end. And almost no matter what went on there, the school was “right” and never, ever, would I have been placed elsewhere. It would have never even occurred to me.
There was an implication that my older siblings might one day do something other than continue to live in the family home. I’m not going to tell you that detailed, elaborate, thoughtful care was put into planning their futures because that would be a lie, but some attention was given. My older siblings, with parental support, took stabs at college. Despite having several daughters, my parents funded and orchestrated precisely one modest wedding, for my oldest sister. They assisted another to live away from home and get a two-year professional degree. An older brother also attended college away from home. Money and things were being parceled out, but selectively (and that would never change).
If you’re not familiar with the (dated) term, “Hope Chest,” it was a literal box of some sort, that parents set aside, typically for a daughter, filled with items she would need and use for later life on her own (presumably in marriage, though not necessarily). My mother started these for my older sisters. Even my sister two years older had a full set of dishes, among other things, in hers. My “Hope Chest,” which was an old shoe box, contained one tea towel, a plastic salt & pepper set and one plastic leftover container. You know, I was trying to write this piece straight, to let the pathos of it come through without too much editorializing or commentary or snarkery on my part. But I can’t. I snorted when I typed that last line. I finished virtual key-stroking the words “leftover container” and out it came. Hope Chest? HOPE CHEST?!? How pathetic is that? I’m serious, when I got the hell out of my parents’ house – and that is how I phrase it when I say it – at 19, those items were what I had To Start My New Life. If I’d had any sense, I’d have left my “Hope Chest” behind, maybe on the bed I wasn’t allowed to take. The truth however, is at the time I was naively glad to have those 3 cheap items. For years, I’d convinced myself they were somehow special (and a child will tell themselves all sorts of things). I didn’t know better. Sure, I took note of my sister’s full set of dishes and things given to other siblings, but I tended to wildly rationalize the discrepancies. Besides, I accepted that my sister got dishes because she was “older” and hence, would need them sooner (although, ultimately I did move out before she did.)
None of this had anything to do with lack of available money but it would be a long time till I understood that. I actually felt sorry for my parents, especially my mother, who talked often of not having the money for this or that and made references to ending up in “the poor house” (wherever that was, I didn’t know but I knew it was bad). As I said, I took everything to heart and tended to feel guilty, as intended, for what little I did get (and not much was given cheerfully and in good spirit). I was not privy to the family finances while I was a child in the house, but later did discover in roundabout fashion what was what. Let us say that in subsequent years what I learned made it very clear that a kind of willful miserliness was a larger issue, certainly when it came to children – some more than others – than anything else.
I think about these things still because their effects are imbedded in my psyche and they continue to influence how I feel and act. It took YEARS to parse all this out. I’m still learning, and tiresome as it sometimes seems, I understand now that it doesn’t ever end. Or it won’t for me. However, the more I figure out, the better it gets. I’m single and while that factors in to my self-reflection, I do believe that single or not, the relationship a person has with themselves is the most important one. Because in addition to determining the quality of your life and ongoing state of mind, it informs all other relationships and even who you’ll have relationships with. For me, getting a handle on how I treated myself, in part by virtue of what I was and was not given (and realizing what I was-and-was-not-given was pretty fucked up), has created the incentive to change. Crap is no longer good enough for me, not from me and not from anybody else. But I had to see it for what it was first.
If I hadn’t changed and wasn’t continually changing, I doubt I’d share this here, but do because a) I’m compelled to think through and make sense of my life and b) not because a reader’s circumstances are necessarily just like mine, but because I know so many people have lived variations of what I’m saying, with their own specificities and personal details.