January 26, 2010

The Funny Story: Loose Lips Sink Ships

In my last post, I told about going over to the home of a baby getting treatment for jaundice, just to make sure the phototherapy device was being used right and answer any questions the parents might have.  It’s called a ‘bili blanket’ and gives off an otherworldly glow.

Warmly invited to stay for dinner, an extra place was set for me next to the baby’s grandmother.  She’s 78 and had come a long way to see the new baby.  Each of us told funny stories of our own childhoods.  Sometimes they weren’t really stories from our direct memory, but stories we remember that our parents told about us as babies.  These gradually became part of our personal folklore.  When the stories are outrageous enough or dramatic enough, they enter into our family folklore.

It was told by my parents many times that we were on a family car trip at about the time of my mother’s birthday, when I was 2 or maybe 3.  We were on a car ferry, I don’t remember exactly—maybe it was Maine to Nova Scotia, or something in that general region.  We had a little birthday celebration for my mom.  I don’t remember (nor was it told as part of the story) what her gifts were, just that my dad and my older sister both had things to give her.  No one had included me in this process, and I was giftless.  So after a couple of moments of losing track of me in the ship’s bar/restaurant, I show up with a gift.  Looking very pleased and with a big smile, I hand my mother a lovely black leather purse.  I expected immediate surprise, gratitude, and compliments on my resourcefulness in acquiring such an elegant gift while on a ferry without a store at night somewhere in the Bay of Fundy.  Did I mention I was around 2?  You can imagine what happened instead.  My mother looked aghast and said, Where did you get this?  Show me right now!  And I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong.  Well, the ship wasn’t that big and the open seating in the restaurant area was limited, so it didn’t take long to find a woman looking for her purse.  She was gracious to my parents who were so apologetic to her.  My mother still tells this story as cute and endearing but it makes me cringe.
Here’s what Doris had to tell. 

    “I have a funny story too.”  We all listened.  “I killed my sister.  I was just a baby but I killed her just the same.”  We were still kind of chuckling from the last story.  The baby’s mother turned to her husband and said that he had never told him that his mother had a sister.  He stopped smiling and told her to just listen to the story.  “I was a fraternal twin.  I was just two and a half pounds but she was over five pounds.  Apparently there wasn’t quite enough room in there, inside our mother, and I was stepping on her umbilical cord until I killed her.  She was dead when she was born.  But not me!”  Doris smiled broadly.

“These were the days before ultrasound,” I pointed out.  “How did your mom know this?” 
“I don’t know,” said Doris.  “Maybe the doctor told her.”  She looked around at the suddenly quiet table.  “Oh, it’s a funny story.  Besides, I found out it just couldn’t be true.  When I was old enough to find out for myself, I learned that fraternal twins (you know, the non-identical kind) are born from separate sacs.  So there was no way my foot could have been on her umbilical cord.”
“How did you feel about the story when you learned that?”
“I don’t know.  Maybe it wasn’t that nice of my mother to have been telling this joke all those years.  Sort of at my expense."
“If it were true,” I suggested, “it wouldn’t be that funny.  If it wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be funny either.  Why have you thought it was a funny story all these years later?"
“Because she always said it was a funny story.  She would tell it at parties and say ‘Let me tell you all the funniest story...about how little Doris killed her sister!’  Then she would laugh and so would everyone else.”

What do you think of this story?  Do you remember the first time you brought a date to Thanksgiving dinner at your family’s home?  Why was it necessary for your parent to tell everyone about the time you crashed the car or had a Playboy under your bed or were hauled in by the police for something?  Maybe it was the time you had a bathroom accident at a particularly humiliating moment?

I have several opinions about this phenomenon, which seems to be fairly common.  They are subtle, desperate attempts by parents to re-assert their dominance over the child, who is now an independent teen or adult.  They are just what their own parents did to them.  They are stories that the parent feels are genuinely cute or funny. 

The last point really makes me mad.  Nearly always, as the story gets repeated year after year, holiday after holiday, the child victim has made their opinion of it really clear.  Maybe with crying with embarrassment, maybe storming off away from the table (‘oh don’t be such a baby’), maybe tantrums, maybe one of the times you told your parents that you hate them.  Somehow, they never got any of these messages, and the story becomes family truth.  No one listened to the child.

Dr. Wolffe’s Rule Number 1:  Listen to your child.

When the baby is new, it’s OK at some superficial level to joke with your friends and family about the common experiences of parenthood:  the baby’s gas and various effluvia, the time you fell asleep with her in your arms and she slid with a thud onto the floor.  But I say this is OK only on a superficial level because I worry about the laxity parents allow themselves.  You think you’ll know when the baby is old enough to have feelings hurt by your words?  You think you will know the moment when you are really angry at her but will hold back because she will remember what you are about to say for the rest of her life and use what you say to describe you in one phrase to a room full of strangers?

Dr. Wolffe’s Rule Number 2:  Be kind.

Kindness isn’t always saying yes.  But if you want to get to Doris’s age and still have your children speaking to you, you need to be kind to them now.  Today. 

Doris, from my brief meeting with her, is a terrifically smart, independent woman who emerged apparently quite well from an abusive marriage.  But she didn’t really see that the story wasn’t funny and said so much about her parents.  I’m not worried about her.

These posters are from World War II, during which the phrase Loose Lips Sink Ships was in common parlance.  The idea was that you never knew who could overhear and in what way something could be turned against us.  Parents should have this in mind.  That joke they tell at junior’s expense could cost them the ability to know their own grandchildren.  Is it worth it?

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?