Betty Duffy

Monday, January 4, 2010

I Doubt Your Family Is As Cool As This:

My husband points out that this post has no other purpose than to tell what I did over Christmas Break. If vacation logs with odes to family don't interest you, you might prefer to skip this one. I think I also used one or two impolite words.

When my siblings come together, we bring our combined eighteen children. They are all under the age of twelve, and after they have played until they are red in the cheeks, and we’ve fed everyone as much as they can eat, they sleep on floors, couches and chairs, in complicated configurations around my parents’ house: the little girls in traded pajamas, asleep on the floor in my parents’ room; The older girls, upstairs with their “American Girl” dolls; A pile of boys in the basement, laid out like slugs in their sleeping bags, dripping from the la-z-boy.

And then the grown-ups, who don’t feel very grown-up at all, emerge from the dark bedrooms where the babies have just been placed ever-so-carefully on their pallets, milk dripping from their open lips. We collect food and drink from the kitchen and sit around the big room, waiting for someone to say something funny.

“So Little Brother, getting a little thick around the middle are we?” Apparently, Little Brother is now some sort of “Rising Star” attorney down in Dallas, but we don’t want it to go to his head.

“I’m sorry,” Little Brother says, “you’re going to have to put that in a compliment sandwich for me.”

A compliment sandwich occurs when one frames a criticism between two compliments, thus softening the blow of the criticism for he who receives it, and allowing the one offering the criticism to make it ever so much sharper, since it’s offered between two compliments. For instance:

1. Cute haircut.
2. You’re a complete a-hole.
3. Nice shoes.

This is where the fun is to be had for my siblings and me. We thrive on offering one another thinly veiled criticism. It’s how we show our love. We revert back to our childhood personae: My older brother, the bully; my sister, the bookworm; I’m the bratty show-off; and my little brother is everyone’s pet and pawn.

We chronicle the rise and fall of one another’s weight with near-obsessive precision, and yet our family gatherings are in constant orbit around the kitchen, all day long, eating…eating more. So it seems an accomplishment of some sort of magic when one of us turns up thin (She gets to eat whatever she wants and not get fat.).

So Little Brother’s compliment sandwich goes thus:
1. You look just like Ben Affleck.
2. You also look like a guy who just swallowed Ben Affleck.
3. Fortunately, you’ve finally grown into your buck teeth.

Perhaps because of the compliment sandwich, this year was less critical than years past. Maybe we’ve worn out our old standbys. Maybe more of us are thin this year than not. Maybe because my brother-in-law leaves soon for Afghanistan, and my husband has pneumonia, and more and more time tends to pass between gatherings of our entire family, this year was about finding work for idle hands and it kept our hearts light.

We went outside for a walk. The snow fell in plump wet flakes, obscuring the view through our collective fogged up glasses. There was a crazy halo around the moon. A friend from college once said the moon and the earth are having a love affair, and it seemed on such a night, with the moon-glow on our snowy coats, that we might as well spend the evening together in the fantasy that we’re still young.

We passed the derelict house that sits out in front of my parents’ property. Its ancient trees planted in a row were topped off years ago and look like hands reaching up from the underworld. We were soon plotting the order in which we’d die if we were living in a horror movie. We couldn’t decide if it’s the nerdy girl or the slutty girl who always dies first, which put my sister and I at odds. If one of us had to play the nerd it would be my sister, and if one of us had to play the slut, it would probably be me, because as my sister-in-law pointed out, “Your blog got a little too sexy for its shirt last week,” (Can you sandwich that for me?). But my brother-in-law said he’d protect my sister, and so he’d probably end up dying first, going down with a military salute after a heroic battle for his life, and then tragically, the nerdy girl would die anyway. Romantic.

Around that time I decided I wasn’t going to be the slutty girl but the writer girl instead, and then it became a battle with my sister-in-law (the smart, sassy Texan) for who would die next. And we decided it would look like Smart-sassy would be the last one standing, but then she’d go into Writer Girl’s room and discover that Writer Girl had just finished typing up a manuscript about how Smart-sassy would take the knife, and that Writer Girl was really the murderer all along, and that she was that very moment standing in the shadows waiting to take down Smart-Sassy, and turn the sensational story into a best-selling horror novel. The end. I’m the last one standing.

We walked into the upper field, and decided halfway around perimeter that we would run across the field instead. We couldn’t decide if we were frolicking or fleeing the unseen. “Let’s call it a frolick,” one said, and we all agreed, which put us in a mood for more such fun.

We arrived at the sledding hill, where the toboggan and plastic disks sat in an alluring state of repose, from our children’s earlier descent. My brother-in-law grinned mischievously. Midnight sledding was inevitable. None of us are currently pregnant or depressed. Though we all may be closer in age to forty than twenty, we had no real reasons to decline this invitation to fun. Two by two, we went down the hill, and trudged back up, again and again, until someone pointed out that morning was just around the bend and our children would show us no mercy at dawn.

This morning, as everyone has packed up and driven back to their corners of the country, the pack of eighteen children has dwindled down to my five who are on their way to school, my husband is back to work, and the house is cold as a tomb, I can’t help laughing, remembering how my sister’s voice sounded like Miss Piggy as she flew down the hill in the night: “KERMEEEEEEEEEE!”


Dawn Farias said...

Such a lovely, lovely story. Even with the word "slutty". Thank you.

Christy said...

You are so right, my family is nowhere near as cool.

Emily J. said...

Compliment Sandwich:

Nice Post.
Smooth move, EL, you gave away the chance to make millions on the movie deal by giving away the ending!
I like the way you make us all sound cooler than we really are.

Nerdgirl to Writergirl: By the way, you used an subjective pronoun where you should have used objective.

Sally Thomas said...

Yeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhh . . . just spent a week with my family. I love them. But my kids have one cousin, with whom they have hardly any contact, and now she's in college, so, so much for that, more or less. And when there's criticism, it's just criticism.

One reason I had four kids -- aside from God's apparently just intending me to have that many, no more and no less -- was so that at least my grandchildren might have some hope of having cousins. I liked having cousins to play with, and it seems a bit of a rip-off that my kids didn't get any to speak of.

Can you tell I just got out of the car after an 11-hour drive through the snow? Feeling a bit road-jaded just now.

And my verification-code word is "reasill."

BettyDuffy said...

Sally, I think it was Anthony Esolen who wrote an essay in Touchstone several years ago titled, "Dozens of Cousins." Cousins are definitely a boon for the kids at Christmas time, and on vacations. And my sibs and I are still close to the cousins with whom we grew up. It's a built in network of friends who know just about everything about you. That said, managing and feeding a herd of eighteen children on vacations has its rewards and challenges. Makes me wonder how Mrs. Dugger does it--but I guess if I watched the show, I'd know how she does it.

Writer girl to Nerdy girl:
1. Thanks for the Sisters in Blogging award.
2. You used "an" when you should have used "a"--so hahaha.
3. I'm glad you had a safe trip home.

Anne said...

I'm so impressed with the compliment sandwich idea! I love sandwiches and will have to remember that line the next time someone in my family blasts me with an insult. In fact, that might have come in handy just this past 14 year old son gave his backward mother a cell phone (would you get with it already mom-everyone has a cell phone!) right, now I just need to learn how to use it! Anyway, he also gave me a candy cane and a package of hot chocolate with a note that said "Here's a little treat for you, but not too much because I like a skinny mom." I think I could have used some bread wrapped around that insult veiled in a compliment.

Anyway, the comments here make me realize that you and Emily are sisters! No wonder I like both of your blogs so much! You're right, my family is not as cool as yours!

God bless you in the New Year!

Emily J. said...

Man, I wish the comment box had an edit function - or a way to delete without calling you at 11 pm. Heh heh.

By the way, I'm enjoying listening to Melanie right now. You also have cool friends. I might still have a pair of her pants that she "gave" to you and then you gave to me. Are they worth anything now that she's famous?

Young Mom said...

My family is so as cool as that, Dang I miss them.

wifemotherexpletive said...

wow. do you all let strangers come hang out during the holidays? I sure could use some midnight sledding... :)

BettyDuffy said...

I have to admit, we're not always cool. In fact, we were all so tired by New Year's Eve, we made an agreement to pretend that the sledding night was actually New Years, and that the night we were too lazy to turn on Dick Clark's rockin' New Year's Show was just some ordinary night.

Kate said...

You broke the pact!

Also, you forgot to write about our fiber tabs.

BettyDuffy said...

Kate, I knew if I mentioned the fiber pills, everything would go down the toilet. Some things are just better left unsaid.

Last night as I was falling asleep, I ran through the day a little in my mind. I cleaned toilets yesterday, and considering the telltale evidence, I said to Joe as I was nodding off, "Everyone has diarrhea." Then it occurred to me that if I died in my sleep those would be my last words--so I had to follow it up with "...and I love you."

Just another one of those things better left unsaid, but now I've said it.

Kate said...

I don't think your theme would have gone down the toilet - don't be so quick to poo-pooh the idea. The post could have become bloated with additional meaning! I think it could inspire some really moving feelings, you know?

BettyDuffy said...

If you won't use your joke, I will:

I love to B.M.azed with the myriad ways to incorporate potty humor into seemingly innocuous dialogue.

Marie said...

Back Bay View is your sister? I'm so out of the loop. . . . .