Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Life rules

Guv loved to go down to Canal Park and look at the lake in
all kinds of weather--but mostly stormy and wintry.

Turn out the light when you leave the room.

Close the door, are you trying to heat the outside?

You didn't get the last drop.

Just eat it.

You're going to ruin your eyes.

Don't slam the door.

Shut the window! Do you know how cold it is out there?

Leave him alone.

Just try three bites.

Go to bed.

Did you get the last drop?

Come home when the church bells ring.

Stop kicking my seat.

Leave her alone.

Stop it.

Turn off that overhead light; everyone outside can see you!

Don't touch the thermostat. Never mind; just don't touch it.

No, you may not be excused. Wait for everyone to finish.

Any family has rules, and we didn't have any more or much different rules from any other family. But with ten highly independent kids it was a world of constant correction. Some of these rules have stayed with me all my life, almost to an obsessive degree. I still tilt the milk carton and hold it there, waiting for those last two drops, as if it matters.

I still turn lights off, compulsively, sometimes (foolishly) turning off the hall light before I go down the stairs, instead of after. When I hear church bells peal, my mind still flashes back to curfew, and childhood, and summer evenings of full sunshine when I didn't want the playing to end; the 6 p.m. ringing of the bells at Pilgrim Congregational Church, right across the street, was always our signal to go home.

The Girls Room was the big bedroom in the front of the house, and the windows had thin curtains, and no shades. The ceiling light lit the room like a stage. My sisters took turns changing their clothes inside the closet, the only place where we had any privacy. I never cared; I never thought anyone was looking me, ever, and I stood boldly in the middle of the room as I skinned out of my shorts and tank top, my skinny chest bare for a flash as I wormed my cocoa-stained nightgown over my head, getting ready for bed.

Some of the house rules, of course, were unspoken. I figured them out by watching, by experimenting, by absorbing the atmosphere of the house through my skin. Most of them had to do with gauging the mood of my father:

* If you walk into an utterly silent room and Guv is in there, wait before speaking. He might be in the middle of talking, which often involves long silences while he thinks. (And if you do burst into a room and start talking enthusiastically about something you just did or saw or read, do not be surprised if the response is a charged silence, and then a muttered, "Goddamn it.")

* If you are playing records in the living room and you have shoved the coffee table off to the side and are pretending to be the donkey going down into the Grand Canyon (you are listening to "The Grand Canyon Suite") and you see Guv's car pull up in the front of the house, quickly pull the table back into place, turn off the record player, and go upstairs until you see if he's in a good mood or a bad mood.

* If it is evening, and you fall asleep on the couch, and then you sort of half-wake-up when Guv walks in the room, keep your eyes closed and pretend to still be sleeping. If you are lucky, he will pick you up in his arms and carry you upstairs. You do not get hugged much, you do not get told that you are loved, but in those slow, careful steps up the stairs, that gentle settling into the covers, you can feel it.


Indigo Bunting said...

Oh, how I love the imperative.

Irene said...

I wonder what other kind of things you figured out all on your own in that puzzled, concerned little head of yours?

Faye said...

Oh, the landmines of childhood!

Just noticed the "Childhood Stories from Duluth" sidebar. Quite a lineup, Laurie. Very exciting and intriguing to think what you're going to do with these bits and pieces.

laurie said...

me too, Indigo. i must be careful not to overuse it.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

There were a lot of rules to track--spoken and unspoken. Knowing you were safe and tucked in was good, though.

Erin said...

Your stories of Guv remind me so much of stories of my father-in-law, who I did not have the opportunity to meet. Especially the muttered "goddammits." If a timer, or anything, beeped in the kitchen, he would call to my mother-in-law, "Mamie? Something's beeping." The kitchen was not his domain, but he thought that was helpful.

The Girl Next Door said...

Love the image of being carried upstairs. Yes sometimes it's the little things we have to notice.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Lovely recollections..I enjoyed them:)

Jo's World said...

Who would play Guv in a movie about him?

Jo, Up North

Danny Klecko said...

Kids in Hell ask for ice water, and they don't get it.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Now you have me thinking about our house rules. That's one of the beauties of your stories - you get your readers thinking about their own memories and the things that shaped them. And the ending here is lovely.

Flea said...

I think I heard every one of those rules growing up. They're good ones. I've uttered most of them with my own kids.

Jr Ocero said...

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Two French Bulldogs said...

Most of them sound familiar, BOL
Benny & Lily

troutbirder said...

Well I must admit a lot of those "rules" seemed familiar. Especially the ones about the lights...:)

Eulalia (Lali) Benejam Cobb said...

As an only child, I am agog at these stories. What exotically different continents we all grow up in!