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
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
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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