Family is a funny thing. There are these people who we’re genetically connected to, and we’re supposed to be loyal to and supportive of and wonderful toward them under all circumstances, no exceptions. Simply and precisely because we’re family. That’s sort of an unspoken rule. It never actually happens that way, but that’s the expectation. In reality, we’re definitely loyal (mostly), we’re typically supportive (unless we think they’re being stupid or obnoxious), and we usually manage to behave wonderfully toward them (well, to their faces, anyway). And that’s on a good day. Factor in sibling rivalry and other general effed-up-ness that almost always goes hand in hand with family, and it can be a real circus. And usually not the fun kind.
But for most of us, family isn’t limited to people with whom we share genetic material. In adulthood, most of us drink the kool-aid and decide to marry, thus inheriting a whole new branch of the family tree: in-laws. It’s funny to me that we call them in-laws. It’s like we feel the need to announce to world in no uncertain terms that we’re not ACTUALLY related to these people, nor would we claim them if not required to by law. Don’t get me wrong. I love my in-laws. All of them. They’re fantastic people, and actually, I would claim each and every one of them as my own in a heartbeat. In fact, I genuinely and truly feel honored to call them family. For most of us, family also includes step-family. Stepmoms, stepsisters, step-second-cousins-twice-removed. In-laws and step-people, they’re clearly family, but they didn’t get that way by sharing DNA with us. They got that way because somebody (if it is wasn’t us personally) chose to make them family.
And then there are those people who are like family. “Dude, you’re like a brother to me.” We all have a handful (or more, if we’re lucky) of those people. These are the typically the coolest and most fun of all our family-people, so cool and fun that we go out of our way to make them family for no particular reason at all. Just because we want to. And these people, these like family folks, they’re often more loyal, supportive, and wonderful than our actual family. Why? When they have no evolutionary or moral obligation to us? Because they’re awesome, that’s why. Which is why we choose to make them like family in the first place. For at least a good percentage of you reading this post, I can name one like family member that you and I share. Seriously. As soon as you read this person’s name, you’re gonna be like, “Oh. Yeah. Totally.” Ready? Here goes… JLove. One of the coolest, most fun, most awesomely generous and loyal humans to ever walk the face of the earth. If you’re reading this, and you don’t know JLove, truly, I’m sorry. Maybe someday soon you’ll be fortunate enough to cross paths with him. For now, I’m lucky to call JLove my like family.
And here’s the thing about family: Once you’re in, you’re in. Whether it’s genetics, marriage, or childhood pinky swears that bind us, family is in it for the long haul. Which is fantastic. Except for when it’s not. Sometimes, it would be nice to call a time-out from family. To get a break from being forced to be subjected to a family member’s company and the subsequent fall-out. We’ve all been there. And, whether we like to admit it or not, we’ve all been on both the giving and receiving ends of the “sometimes family is a suckhole” experience. Even me. Oh, I’ve dished it out.
If, for some inexplicable reason, you doubt my capability for causing my family misery, I can prove it to you. Sure, you could ask my parents. I have surely caused them plenty of grief. You could ask my little brother or sister. If fact, you should. There are some excellent stories there. You could ask my husband. Ask him on a Sunday when he’s trying to watch football in the midst of my honey-do nagging, and I have no doubt he’d convince you of my nerve-working nature. For good measure, I’m sure my mother-in-law (or more insistently, my grandmother-in-law) would confirm Kyle’s saintly ways for putting up with me. You could sure as shiz ask my children. After returning from two days away from me, I asked Austin if he had missed his mama. His response? “No… Oops. I mean, yes. I missed you, Mommy.”
You could ask all of those people. You should ask all of those people. But not today. Not to start. To start, you should ask my stepsister. I thought long and hard about whether I should include her first name in this post. After thorough consideration, I decided there would be no harm in calling her by her true name. First, most of you reading this know her personally. You know her name. Calling her something else would be silly and pointless. For those of you who don’t know her first name, learning it will not magically allow you to decipher her full name, address, or social security number. Finally, it’s not like anything that will follow will embarrass her. If anything, I’m the one who should be embarrased. I’m not embarrassed, but I realize that I should be.
I met my stepsister Beth on the first day of kindergarten when we realized we share a dad. Yes, that marked the beginning of my Jerry Springer inspired childhood. We became fast friends, and we spent A LOT of time together. We didn’t live together, but we were in the same classes and shared the same circle of friends. From that first day in kindergarten, I commenced tormenting her, and I didn’t stop until I went off to college. Actually, maybe I never stopped. I’m not always the greatest judge of friendly behavior. In any case, I’ve certainly slowed my roll in the last several years.
I didn’t mean to torment Beth growing up, but torment her I did. Relentlessly. Highly successfully. It’s a wonder she still speaks to me. And maybe you could argue that my tormenting was just innocent sibling rivalry, but you’d be wrong. It’s not that I enjoyed causing Beth misery; rather, I felt both justified and obligated to teach her important life lessons. Never mind that we were kids, that I was actually a few months younger than her, and that I had no business teaching her anything. I thought that somebody needed to look out for her, and unfortunately for her, I decided that somebody should be me.
Case in point: In elementary school, Beth’s mom dressed her like an idiot. I feel pretty confident that she would back me up on that. It wasn’t Beth’s fault that her mom’s idea of appropriate attire for a 4th grader on a typical Tuesday was a table-cloth-esque floral print dress with a lacy sailor collar, sheer control top panty hose, and sensible flats. It wasn’t her fault, but she sure suffered the consequences. First, kids made fun of her. Nothing made-for-TV-movie worthy, but mean-spirited heckling nonetheless. Most of the girls were nice enough, but the stupid twerp boys (even the generally friendly ones) tended to revel in pointing out the inarguable absurdity of Beth’s everyday attire. There’s no excuse for forcing a 9 year old to wear panty hose to school in the blazing Texas heat. Had I known about CPS at the time, I’m pretty sure I would have reported Beth’s mom for abuse, neglect, and whatever other accusations were made available to me. Seriously… White pointy toe dress flats on PE day? If that’s not abusive, I don’t know what is.
To make matters worse, Beth was a terrible klutz. Every day at recess, without fail, Beth would fall down. On her knees. Every day. And every day, she’d rip her ridiculous panty hose and scrape up her knees. She’d scuff her stupid, developmentally- and context-inappropriate church shoes. And then she’d cry. Not about her bloody knees. But about her torn hose and scraped shoes. Her mom was going to kill her. She was going to get grounded, or at the least, griped at. As much as I hated to admit it, I recognized that I was powerless in forcing Beth’s mom to see the error in her style-challenged ways. I knew Beth would be forced to go on dressing like every day was school picture day.
So I set my sights where I could more realistically affect change. I might not be able to keep Beth from dressing like a Sunday school reject, but I could keep her from spending half of the school day fretting over the fact that she ruined yet another pair of Leggs. My plan? To forbid her from any sort of running, romping, or scampering at recess. Yes, I said forbid. When I commit to something, I commit 100%. Kickball? Nope. Take a seat, Beth. Hopscotch? You can be the square-drawer, but you may not engage in any hopping. Jump rope? Oh hell no. Walking around chatting? Maybe, but only if you stay in the grass on nice flat ground. Skipping? Girl, please…
I’m not sure that I ever outlined for Beth my noble intentions in treating her like a retarded prisoner of war. And I’m not sure that she ever really questioned my authority over her (obviously, I had brainwashed her or utterly wore her out much earlier in our lives). She seemed to have resigned herself to the fact that, whether she liked it or not, I was the boss of her. While she didn’t question my authority, she did question the reasoning behind my forbidding basically every fun-and-fancy-free activity available to her. My response was typically something along the lines of, “So you don’t fall down, idiot.”
It never occurred to me that my efforts might be more appreciated had I told her that it broke my shriveled black heart to see her fret and worry about getting in trouble with her mother for things that were entirely her mother’s fault in the first place. I wanted to protect her from the pain of falling down, the ridicule of kids inevitably laughing and poking fun when she did fall, and the scorn of her mother’s harsh words about the stupid panty hose. I remained the Recess Nazi until we went to middle school, and I only quit then for two reasons: we no longer had recess, and Beth’s mom finally let her pick out her own clothes. No more panty hose for that girl.
To be clear, though, just because I gave up recess as a source of torment doesn’t mean I stopped tormenting Beth altogether. Quite the opposite, actually. I think middle school is when I really started to lay it on thick. And the general tone of it all became less philanthropic and more purely mean on my part. I’ve got no excuse for my not nice behavior toward Beth, other than that I’m not a nice person. But we covered that already.
Once, Beth and I lied to her mom and said we were going on a bike ride. Actually, that part wasn’t a lie. We did ride our bikes, but we left out our intended destination. Had we announced to Beth’s mom that we were going to ride to Checkers to get some french fries, we would have been doubly punished. First, we would have been forbidden from going and thus the denied crispy, salty deliciousness that we so craved. Second, we would have been forced to listen to Beth’s mom scold her about her “weight” and insist starting a preemptive diet immediately. That would have obviously been more unpleasant for Beth than for me, but I still hoped to avoid it if at all possible. As a side note, Beth’s “weight” was not an issue. There was an issue, but it didn’t involve weight, and it didn’t belong to Beth. Needless to say, we simply called out that we were going bike riding and would be back before dark, and we high-tailed it out of there.
Our destination was not a quick jaunt away. Rather, it was a good couple of miles away, across a number of busy streets, and under one highway. Not a convenient or particularly safe trip for a couple a teenage girls. But seriously, the fries were worth it. We made it to Checkers, got the fries, and immediately headed back toward our neck of the woods. Checkers was in a relatively seedy area, and we were not looking for a side of sexual assault to go along with our fries. About halfway through the ride back, Beth dropped the bag of fries, and they skittered across the side of the road.
Suffice it to say, I was not pleased. Every last fry was on the ground. No crispy, salty goodness for me. Once again, Beth’s clumsiness was to blame, and I was not going to let her off the hook. She needed to pay for what she had done. Obviously, that meant that she needed to eat several of the fries (not all of them. I’m not a complete monster) directly off the ground. Oh, she protested, but I was having none of that. She was going to eat some of those fries. When she pleaded, “But Tara, they’re dirty,” I responded coldly, “Well, God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt.” Terrible, I know. And that’s not the worst of it.
I went from treating Beth like someone who needed to be managed (“Don’t sit there, dummy; it’s wet.” or “Hey bookworm, no one wants to hear how many AR points you have.”) to shamelessly treating her like an indentured servant. I spent mornings and afternoons in middle school at Beth’s house. As soon as I waltzed in the door in the morning, I would wedge her out from in front of the bathroom mirror. “Move,” I would demand as I proceeded to complete my very sophisticated 7th grade primping procedures. The entire time, I barked orders at her that were reminiscent of a brain surgeon in the operating room. “Curling iron,” I would say flatly as Beth rushed to unfurl the thing from her own head to place it in front of me. “Hairspray… Clear mascara.” Yes, I said clear mascara. None of that garish black gunk for me. I was 12, after all. What kind of floozy do you think I was?
Occasionally, I’d break from my clinical item-demanding to squawk various other orders at Beth. “Ew! Go change the radio station… Now! I hate this song. Seriously, Beth. You know that.” The vast majority of the time, Beth unquestioningly met my demands and followed my orders. Occasionally, though, she’d get fed up and throw some (well-deserved) attitude my way. “Change it yourself,” she might snap, “I’m not your slave.” This did not sit well with me. But like any effective superior understands, you can’t let your subordinates see when they’ve got you riled. My typical response to Beth’s rare testing of my limits was to repeat what she had just said to me verbatim in a deep, slightly moronic and highly immature voice. I’d then switch back to my normal voice and roll my eyes as I said calmly, “Just do it, Beth.”
One afternoon after school, we were sitting in Beth’s room listening to a Reba McEntire cassette on her boombox. Actually, that’s not true. A Reba McEntire cassette was involved, but we were not merely listening to it. We were singing along and recording ourselves as we did so. After much debate, I ceded Reba’s part in “Does He Love You” to Beth, while I took Linda Carter’s part. I couldn’t argue that Beth’s voice was slightly more appealing than my own, and thus, she deserved Reba’s part fair and square. (For the record, Beth has an amazing voice. I, on the other hand, have the singing voice of a demented cat in heat.).
After a borderline amazing rendition of the song, I suddenly had the hankering for a snackie. “I’m hungry,” I moaned. “Ok… Go get something,” Beth responded. “Psshhh, you go,” I quipped. “Um, you’re the hungry one,” she attempted to reason. I was having none of it. My voice took a particular tone (if you’ve ever been bossed by me – and let’s face it, you all have – you know the tone I’m talking about). “Heh. I’m your guest, Beth. You have to wait on me. It’s, like, the rule,” I said as I plopped myself onto her sunflower comforter. She rolled her eyes and countered, “You come here everyday. You’re walking around in your underwear. You’re NOT a guest. Get your own food.”
We went on like that for a few more minutes before Beth finally caved, “Fine. I’ll get you a snack. Anything to shut you up.” That’s generally how it works. If you’re met with resistance, just keep at it until you’ve exhausted the other party, and they give in. Every whiny preschooler knows that. Beth headed for her bedroom door, “What do you want? Chips?” I scoffed, “Chips? Seriously? Beth. I’m starving. No. I do not want chips. I want a melty bagel sandwich.” She whipped around, “Uh, that is NOT a snack, Tara. That’s a meal. I have to toast things and microwave things. It takes like 10 minutes to make. No way. I’ll get you some chips or something, but if you want a bagel sandwich, you can put some pants on and make it yourself.”
Beth had some pretty good points. Sound logic and good reasoning. All things with which I wasn’t the least bit concerned. It was clear to me that Beth had forgotten her place, and I’d have to remind her of it. Minions need to be dealt with firmly, after all. “Excuse me? You already agreed to get me a snack, so you can’t go back on your word now. What are you, a liar? You know what? It’s not up for discussion. Quit whining, and get in there and make me a melty bagel sandwich. Go.” Beth stood, blinking at me. “Oh, and I want the oniony bagel, not the plain one. You screwed it up last time,” I added.
I watched as Beth clenched her fists and thought I saw her eye twitch spastically. Before I could find out for certain, she lost it. She yelled. No, she screamed at me. She told me I was a terrible and awful brat, that she didn’t deserve to be treated that way, and that she didn’t have to take my crap. I almost started to agree with her and feel guilty, but I thought better of it. “Actually, Beth, you’re right. You don’t have to take my crap. You don’t have to follow my orders. But here’s the thing: you do. Without fail. You’re gullible and weak and vulnerable. Do I take advantage of that? Absolutely. Who’s fault is that? Not mine. Nope. It’s your fault, Beth. If you don’t want to be treated like a doormat, then don’t. Me and my melty bagel sandwich are the least of your worries. Think of what kind of crap other people are gonna throw at you.”
Beth slumped in a heap onto her daybed beside me. “You’re right,” she sighed. We sat in silence together for a moment before I grinned and said, “So, how about that sandwich…” To my absolute lack-of-surprise, she got up, went to the kitchen, and made the best melty bagel sandwich I’d ever eaten. She even remembered the oniony bagel.