Blame It On Birth Order

I felt mistreated when Mom assigned chores by age. Being too old for Barbara’s pretend work and too young for Carolyn’s skilled tasks, I drew the dull, dirty or distasteful jobs. I remember pushing our vacuum down the hall, trying to finish before the antiquated machine erupted. It needed to be emptied; I hoped to avoid doing so by stowing it away before Mom noticed the dust clouds oozing from its bloated pores.

I cut mean glances at Carolyn who ironed in the kitchen, popping nary a bead of sweat. She sneered back at me as she took a sip of lemonade, turned up the radio, and crooned along with Patti Page: “How much is that doggie in the window—arf! arf!” Seemed more like a party than work to me.

Pushing my belching machine into the living room, I aimed for Barbara, who sat on the floor pairing clean socks from the laundry. Concentrating on her task, she didn’t glance up, increasing my chances of inflicting serious injury. Unfortunately, I had to veer off when Mom appeared and gave Barbara towels to fold along with praise: “Look at the good job you’re doing; you’re getting to be a big help.”

What was I? An incompetent orphan on loan from the poor house?

No, I was a middle child.

Recently, in an article about the impact of birth order on the personalities of children, I read, “If you are a middle child, you probably have fewer photos in the family album.”

Bingo!

A stranger could skim our family albums and immediately identify me as the in-betweener. Baby pictures of the other six abound. My infant gallery consists of one fuzzy snapshot Mom said might be me.

Not that I’m complaining. For every disadvantage listed by experts for middle children, I experienced an advantage. Evidently, I should have felt unknown and unnoticed in the crowd. No problem. I liked doing anything I wanted during the chaos created by rebellious teenagers and needy babies.

Another accepted generalization: “Middle children may feel life is unfair since they enjoy neither the privileges of the older nor the attention given the younger.” But I, too, doted on the babies; and I knew those older did more chores and had to babysit the rest of us. Not my idea of a good time.

The positive middle-child descriptors — cooperative, flexible, independent — seemed a perfect fit for me; while the negative traits — secretive, avoids conflict, may exaggerate or lie to get attention — obviously didn’t apply.

My position in the middle also had advantages the researchers didn’t mention; for example, I received excellent parenting; Mom and Dad hit their stride with me. They’d learned from skirmishes with those older, but weren’t yet weary of the battle as with those younger.

I notice another blessing of my birth order at family reunions. Twenty-one years separate my oldest and youngest siblings. Lawrence was a Marine in Korea when Blaine was a toddler and JL was born. But I lived for several years with all my siblings; I know those older and those younger in alarming detail; and I love them all. I believe they feel the same about me.

“Feels unloved and left out,” one authority said of middle children.

Not in my family.

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Too Soon Finished

Finally summer, when young parents push strollers through mellow evenings; laughter drifts from fenced backyards; and rainbows of green enhance our lives. Under a summer sun, I’m less obsessed by how well I sleep or household tasks that need my attention. I stand taller, breathe easier and open more readily to spontaneity and stray dogs.

Recently, I encountered a friend at the post office: a lovely lady who exceeds me in wisdom, grace and years. “Summer has arrived,” she said, “I love this time of year because it makes me feel young again.”

“How did you spend your summers when you were young?” I asked, responding to her happy smile.

“Helped with chores around our place, mostly, but when I had time, I explored: studied anthills, tried to catch butterflies, searched the night sky for falling stars. Nature fascinated me. I paid attention to even the smallest things in my world.”

Later, I thought about her words and recalled my excitement when the bus pulled away from the elementary school and my friends and I chanted: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” School and winter were vanquished; summer would never end; and the rituals of childhood could begin.

To test our stamina, my siblings and I tried to walk barefoot in the heat of the day down our dirt lane and along the gravel road it met without skittering or complaining. We timed one another to see who was fastest riding Bob’s bike to the mailbox and back. Pumping furiously, I sometimes misjudged a rut, crashed and then proudly displayed scraped elbows and knees.

We dove or belly-flopped into the chlorine-heavy water of Arrowhead Pool and swam as far underwater as we could, carefully marking one another’s progress. Sitting atop our horse, we took pride in not holding onto each other as the oldest guided it along country roads framed by crops.

On July 4th, we played with cap guns because we liked the smell of burned caps and ate lunch in Grandma Hall’s backyard, saving the heart of our slice of watermelon to eat last and ridiculing cousins who gnawed their final bite from the rind.

We held dandelions under one another’s chins to see who liked butter and split the bottom of their stems with our tongues, sucking them until they curled like a slinky. When my friends visited, we plucked petals from daisies to discover if he loved us or loved us not and made dolls from hollyhock blossoms that we threw at Bob when he wouldn’t leave us alone.

As one summer day of my childhood melted into another, I didn’t realize how quickly my freedom to experience and explore would be replaced by the jobs and responsibilities of adulthood.

I didn’t know that when I grew old, the months of June, July, and August would begin to spin by like carousel horses running wild. Now my summers race by so fast I worry I won’t have time to savor them — to store away the smell of roses, the feel of dancing breezes, the sight of goldfinches jostling on a bird feeder and the shouts of children riding their bicycles pell-mell to the pool.

Like my lovely friend, I find summer glorious. I only wish it could slow to the pace it kept when I was young.

For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”

The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.

As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”

Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”

I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”

Oh.

The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”

Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.

So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.

The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.

During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.

Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way  he beamed —  as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.

Confessions of a Foodie

I’m an eager eater. Growing up with Dad as a role model and six pace-setting siblings, I was neither fussy about taste nor shy about consumption. Mom once described her hungry children at the dinner table as piglets at a trough: squeals of excitement, jostling for position and dedication to the task.

My love of all things edible has never faltered. I remember restaurants where I ate outstanding food like others remember the names of their children. Though I’m a bit more refined than a brother who claims he’s never eaten a bad meal in a restaurant, I can find something I can enjoy on any menu. When traveling, I order the most unusual item offered: sautéed squid, braised armadillo, chitlins, a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Graceland.

I never find a dessert too sweet or gooey. When others complain, “My, I can’t eat this; it’s too rich,” I wonder how they’d react if I snatched the offending item from their plate and ate it.

Those who don’t share my passion for food puzzle me: An acquaintance once stopped the happy buzz of party guests around the appetizer table by announcing she didn’t live to eat. She ate to live. Overwhelmed by pity for her dire situation, I choked on a chocolate-covered strawberry.

I also have no patience with fussy eaters who spend more time picking their food apart than eating it. I keep my opinion to myself, though, after an experience I had as a rooky teacher.

Female staff members went out to dinner once a month to celebrate birthdays. The first time I attended, I sat next to Trudy, a stern-looking lady rumored to be uppity. When I ordered peanut-butter pie for desert, she sniffed, “Obviously, Janet has yet to outgrow her juvenile taste in food.”

Though embarrassed by her put-down, I stifled my response: “It’s also obvious, Snooty Trudy, that we could hang Christmas decorations on your enormous nose and stand you in the school’s lobby as our tree.”

So when a friend picked the pepperoni from a pizza and another ordered a hamburger without mustard, onion, lettuce or pickle and with the tomato chopped rather than sliced, I didn’t comment. And when a relative spent five minutes removing the raisins from a piece of raisin cake, I said not a word.

I love comfort food and believe in its power. Whenever misfortune struck a member of my family — not making the basketball team, a baby-sitting job from hell, acne — Mom assured us we’d feel better after we ate. And she was right.

Funeral food is comfort food at its best. After my paternal grandmother’s services, I sat with Dad on the steps to the upstairs bedroom in her pioneer-era home. We juggled plates of food and observed the crowd in silence.

I didn’t know how to console my Dad: I wasn’t sure how he felt about his mother, who left the raising of him to his grandmother and didn’t seem interested in his life when we visited. But he seemed melancholy and withdrawn. Not knowing what to say, I kept quiet, but slid close.

As we munched on potato-and-cheese casserole, pot roast, Jell-O salad, green beans with bits of bacon, homemade rolls, and apple pie, we began to talk. Dad told me he’d never met a piece of pie he didn’t like, and I made him laugh with a story about my college roommate who wouldn’t go to bed without eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and five jelly beans.

We felt better after we ate.

The Roles We Play

Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.

Boys misbehaved, threw rocks and amused themselves by making odd noises. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.

Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.

For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the disreputable lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignantly appalled, but not surprised.

Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.

However, as I observed others, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women played. Dad made all the money, but Mom made most of the decisions. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but JL was the one who learned to cook from her.

One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and bird watching than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, chased boys then tackled them and kissed them — not because she liked them but because she knew they hated it. A friend’s dad knitted scarves, hats and mittens for his family; and a neighbor lady handled a tractor better than most men. Rumor had it she out-cursed them as well.

Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50’s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren: teenagers and young adults who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.

The youngest two grandchildren — ninth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to making music. Three granddaughters play sports aggressively, passionately and successfully. Another was recently deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses exceptional verbal and networking skills once thought impossible for boys. Another is in the Air Force ROTC but also capable of giving  fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”

All are wonderful. All see possibilities I didn’t.

I pondered these thoughts yesterday morning and at the same time played my feminine role: watching Joel assemble a piece of furniture, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.

In Search of Storybook Endings

As I looked at myself in the salon mirror, I expected to see a halo of soft brown curls imparting a youthful glow to my aging face; instead, I saw an orange-tinged strawstack perched on an old face filled with dismay. Once again, reality shattered my rose-colored glasses.

Many years before, when I quit my school-district position as the director of curriculum and staff development to become an independent consultant, I thought I had achieved the glamorous job of my dreams. Then reality intervened.

I remember huddling in the glacial entryway of an unlit city hall, waiting to facilitate the goal-setting session of a civic group in a small Colorado town. Two strangers crowded into the semi-protected corner with me. We couldn’t go inside because “Barb isn’t here, and only Barb knows the code.”

After twenty minutes of forced conversation about my white-knuckled drive over an icy mountain pass blurred by whirling snow, a breathless Barb arrived: “Oh, I don’t know the code. It’s only two digits, so I just punch numbers until it clicks. Sometimes I have to call the mayor.”

Eventually, we entered a small room filled with folding chairs, stained Styrofoam coffee cups and peculiar odors. Barb found the thermostat and soon the heater clanked in complaint and coughed out a cloud of dust-laden air. I found the easel I’d requested in an over-stuffed closet; one leg was jammed and incapable of fully extending; so I propped it up with my purse. When muffled thumps and angry voices reached us through a cinderblock wall, I was told to pay no mind; the jail was next door. “They’ve probably just arrested some drunk.”

In addition to Barb, four people and a large dog attended the meeting. No one claimed the dog, so it introduced itself by sniffing us with more enthusiasm than appropriateness. The leader of the group had a cold, which he shared during red-faced fits of coughing. An older gentleman with wiry hair springing from his ears methodically munched cookies and spoke not a word. Coffee arrived with a pony-tailed fellow who beamed with a benevolent attitude, and grandmotherly woman called me “Hon” and crocheted nonstop.

No one introduced me, so I pushed the dog’s head aside and began.

During the months of planning my move into the world of consulting, I thought I would lead a life of air travel, inspired audiences and standing ovations. Then I discovered, once again, that happily-ever-after is a myth.

When young, my mindset was different: I deliberately predicted worst-case scenarios because I believed thinking of bad things that might happen would prevent their occurrence. Because of this poorly-thought-out philosophy, I imagined my parents had run away when they were late getting home, decided I would faint during my piano recital and assumed I would end up in an iron lung every time I had a cold.

I can’t say dwelling on possible misfortunes made me a happier child any more than imagining bliss made me a bleaker adult. But I’m glad neither approach stopped me from learning, experimenting, changing — and reaping the benefits of doing so. My friends thought my short, slightly orange hairdo an improvement over my long, 80’s perm; and consulting changed my routines, introduced me to interesting people and spurred my creativity.

Stepping into the unfamiliar, not knowing how the story will end, has its rewards.

Home Nursing

Not my mother

Not my mother

When sick, Mom maintained a stoic silence and went to bed, telling my siblings and me to move our squabbles beyond her hearing; so we dutifully went outside when thumping one another became unavoidable.

She expected the same bed rest and silence from us when we complained of swollen glands, stomachaches, or ingrown toenails, “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after a nap.” Her job description didn’t leave time for entertaining us or clucking over our earaches and bee stings.

One day Mom heard howls coming from the yard where Barbara had taught Blaine and JL an exciting new game in which she threw rocks and they dodged them. When Mom went outside to investigate and discovered the crooked, bloody mess that used to be Blaine’s nose, she pinched it into shape, staunched the bleeding, applied tape and told him to go take a nap. She then advised Barbara to run away from home and returned to her ironing.

When a chronic problem, unusual symptom, or something she couldn’t fix prompted a visit to the doctor, she enforced any recommendations with rigor. After we bared our behinds for penicillin shots, we stayed in bed until well, swallowed pills so big we didn’t need breakfast and huddled beneath blankets breathing the pungent fumes of a vaporizer. As directed.

I’ve had sinus problems my entire life. I sometimes imagine the thought process that accompanied my creation: “We’ve given this girl sturdy feet. Let’s even things out by equipping her with flawed sinuses.” One winter, our family doctor told my mom to irrigate my sinuses daily and showed her how to do so. That night, she filled our all-purpose hot water bottle with a saline solution and attached a tube to it with a special nozzle I had to stick up my nose.

She held the contraption level with her head, pinching off the tube, while I bent over the bathroom basin, then let ‘er rip. Oh, the caterwauling and grief. Water and mucus spouting from my nostrils and mouth, I gagged and pleaded; but the water continued to flow. So I pulled the nozzle from my erupting nose and threw it in the basin.

“Janet, you have to do this.” She leaned over, reinserted the tube, and held it firmly in place as I wept. We did this dance for two weeks, as prescribed. I eventually accepted my fate with stony-faced dignity, and my siblings quit clustering around the bathroom door for the evening entertainment.

We couldn’t look to Dad for sympathy or coddling either. He had robust health and didn’t fall prey to common illnesses, so he reacted to the sicknesses of his loved ones with indignation and expressed his worry as anger: “Oh, get up, there’s nothing wrong with you that a little fresh air or work won’t fix.”

Naturally, I inherited Mom’s no-nonsense bedside manner punctuated with Dad’s irrational irritation: “Why doesn’t he just go to bed?” I wonder as Joel wheezes and snuffles around the house, giving me hourly updates on his symptoms.

But the mother who tenderly cared for my sister, Carolyn, during her childhood struggles with polio and rheumatic fever; and the father who visibly worried about Carolyn and checked on her as soon as he got home from work are part of me as well. I learned from my parents to respond to serious illnesses with attention and sympathetic care.

Perhaps the secret of good home nursing is knowing when to nurture kindly and when to stick the nozzle back up your screaming daughter’s nose.