Ordinary People

Carmen Carver

The most extraordinary thing about my family is how ordinary it is. I read the memoirs of people like Alice Walker and bell hooks with envy, reveling in their ability to transform emotional details into almost physical experiences. My own family creates no such imagery.

My mother was a housewife who neither neglected her children nor loved us with anything close to passion. She did what she had to do - no more, no less. She could tell fascinating stories about her own childhood, relating escapades of skipping school or smoking in the girl's room, but her life seemed to end at 18, when she married my father. At any rate, she could remember more of her own girlhood than mine. Until she was ten, she wanted to be a cowgirl. After that, she can't remember ever wanting to be anything but a wife.

My father was equally non-descript, a postal worker who detested his job, and, at times, his family. He was intensely smart, but an abusive upbringing and an early marriage (he was 19) had left him unable to put his intelligence to any practical use. Case in point, he once joined Mensa, the quintessential club for geniuses, just to prove he could. He suffered bouts of rage and depression manifested in extramarital affairs, domestic abuse, and, for a time, alcoholism. In his good moments he was generous, funny, and wise, but mostly he just sat in front of the TV, even eating dinner on the couch.

Neither of my parents had any hobbies, friends, or lives outside of work or, in my mother's case, home. They both struggled with tobacco addiction, especially my mother, who smoked through all four of her pregnancies. They could not agree on decorating and had little money, so the homes we rented were always furnished with an eclectic mix of hand-me-downs from relatives, salvaged family antiques and whatever was on sale at Sears or, more often, K-Mart.

Food was equally as boring. In spite of my father's Italian heritage, he couldn't cook anything that didn't fit in a toaster. My mother, in a weird twist of irony considering her seemingly lifelong dream to be a wife and mother, hated all things associated with the job. When she cooked, we lived on what my siblings and I dubbed the five-meal menu: canned spaghetti, unseasoned pork chops, tuna casserole, Spanish rice and baked macaroni and cheese. When she didn't, it was frozen pizza or lunch meat.

Whatever attempts my parents made to rev up our ordinary lives ended, like so many tuna casseroles, in disaster. First, there was the time they decided to raise Dalmatians. This sounds simple enough except that at the time we lived at the corner of two busy highways, and our yard consisted of a gravel driveway and an area for burning rubbish. This meant that we had to keep two full-grown Dalmatians, plus all their puppies (they averaged eight per litter) in our tiny basement. On top of that, my parents did no research, so they had no idea about the costs that came with breeding animals. We wound up selling puppies for just enough to cover the price of their food and shots. Needless to say, after three litters, my parents had the dogs fixed.

Then there was the time they bought a house for $14,000 at an auction. On the surface, it seemed nice enough: four bedrooms, a huge basement, located in a tiny farming town. Of course, it didn't take my dad's Mensa certificate to deduce why the house sold for such a small price. It was the fixer-upper to end all fixer-uppers. Stained carpets, rotten wood, broken windows: It was our own personal Amityville Horror except without the excitement of poltergeists. My siblings and I still bemoan, only half jokingly, the 4th of July we spent helping my father resurface the roof, the brown and orange deer tapestry they bought to liven up the living room, the exotic fish (God rest their souls), the used Corvette that sat broken down in the garage for two years. My parents just didn't have what it takes to be extraordinary.

True to my heritage, I was a boring child who blossomed into a boring teenager. Despite testing as gifted in kindergarten I had no overwhelming passions, no extraordinary talent. I wanted to be an artist for a while, but my parents couldn't afford classes or supplies, and I was too distracted to teach myself. I had an ear for music, but they couldn't afford music lessons, let alone an instrument, so I easily gave up dreams of playing the violin or flute. In fact, my childhood dreams can be catalogued as mechanically as my mother's cooking, into a sad little list of things my parents couldn't afford and I didn't have the passion to pursue.

And I was the ambitious one. My siblings, not bearing the curse of being "the brainy child" bore instead the curse of being "the normal children." They all had average grades, average looks, and average social skills. They never joined clubs or played sports or won awards. Aside from a few escapades that landed one or the other of them in detention now and then, they simply blended into the crowd. I was lucky: at least I got to be the nerd. They were simply the filler kids between the smart and the dumb, the popular and the unpopular, the outgoing and the shy. They were the kids that sat in the third row: close enough to see the board but far enough away to avoid the teacher.

My siblings and I are all grown up now, and, as our childhoods foretold, none of us is extraordinary. My older brother dropped out of college to manage a Wal-Mart in a small town. My sister has a psychology degree, but she is currently the manager at a local movie theater. My younger brother is in college, studying business administration while working at Sheetz. And I am a graduate student in literature who has no idea what to do with the rest of her life.

As for my parents, my father is still a postal worker and my mother is the ever-reluctant housewife. They continue to smoke, to shop at K-Mart, and to eat from the five-meal menu, although, with the house to themselves, they could afford to raise their standard of living a little. When I go home to visit, I notice small changes: they argue a little less, they go out a little more, they even eat dinner together, a phenomenon I witnessed for the first time only six months ago. Once I even caught them holding hands. For the most part, though, they are the same old boring parents doing the same old boring things. A few wrinkles, a few pounds and a few gray hairs are the only real signs that this is 2000 and not 1990 or, hell, 1980.

Our family gatherings, which become more and more rare the older we get, are as ordinary as the house we have them in. I used to dread them as a reminder of my oppressively normal childhood. But lately my feelings of dread have been replaced by feelings of longing. Maybe it's because I see my parents getting older, and I want to spend more time with them before it's too late. Maybe it's because my sister recently announced she's pregnant with my first niece or nephew. Maybe it's simply because now that I'm on my own, navigating the strange and unsteady waters of adulthood, I crave the very predictability I've always cursed. Whatever it is, I now find myself looking forward to family gatherings as if we were the Kennedys, stopping by Martha's Vineyard to trade political war stories.

And, indeed, despite our ordinary exteriors, our bond is as deep as even the most extraordinary families. I can see it in how our eyebrows all arch exactly the same way when we're angry. I can see it in how, at family reunions, we all wind up sitting in front of the TV while everyone else mingles. I can see it every time we laugh together about that old deer tapestry over a meal of baked macaroni and cheese. Yes, we are ordinary people. We have our hang-ups, we've made our mistakes, but somehow we've managed to hack our way through the jungle and come out together on the other side. And, in this day and age, I'd say that's pretty extraordinary.

© Carmen Carver

Carmen Carver's short stories and poems have been published in Gannon University's literary magazine "The Totem" and a feature story was published in the Erie Daily Times. She has just finished her first semester at Harvard Law School.

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