Mom’s Tattling Policy Meant You Never Had To Say You Were Sorry
Our mother had a unique way of handling her daughters telling on one another; she simply believed that the tattler should be punished. This benefited me but not my sister – Susan couldn’t get her head around the unfairness of it all, she was the offended one yet she had to pay for my indiscretions. I loved the anti-tattler policy and on occasions used it to its fullest advantages. Susan refused to stop telling on me, she kept thinking that the terrible things that I did to her would soften my mother’s heart and she would punish the guilty instigator. She pleaded her case like a state prosecutor but to no avail – my mother could not be swayed. These were basically the only times that Susan ever got assigned time in the corner and she acted like she was sentenced to hard time. She would bawl her little eyes out at the indignity of the whole thing, yet she didn’t want to miss too much playing time with her untrustworthy sister. Go figure.
I wasn’t that terrible, I mean I asserted my rights as older sibling and rightful heir to all toys and first dibs to taste any cookies or candy offered by an adult. I chose the story, the TV show, cartoons, crayons and dolls. I chose when Susan could choose first. She chose when to move out of my bedroom and I chose when to let her back in after several weeks of whining and constant pleading. “I will never play with you, talk to you, draw with you, ride bikes with you … ever again,” played to Susan’s fear of being lonely. She actually believed that she would become invisible to me if she didn’t do whatever I asked of her. She cried her eyes out until I relented and we resumed our play, after all, who else was there to play with close at hand?
One day Susan was being stubborn and wouldn’t do as she was told which led to sharp words and some shoving and I pushed her off the twin bed into the sliding closet door. It popped out of its track and I accused her of being fat and breaking it without any way of fixing it and that Mom would know and that she’d be in big trouble. Little Susan howled with genuine umbrage at the lopsided injustice and after a suitable period of time sulking she readjusted her feelings forgave my misdeeds and blame. Friends again, Susan helped me fix the closet door so that Mom wouldn’t find out we had been fighting. Uncle John aided and abetted our behind the scene lives and probably knew far more about our closeness and rare fights than any other adult in our world. It was he that consoled Susan when she was banished from my room for being too self-righteously pious, too goody-goody, a big pain in my …
Another time Susan was starving but we couldn’t snack between meals so I naturally thought why not tell her that dog biscuits were tasty and that kids ate dog bones all the time. I couldn’t believe Susan was that hungry she would eat anything, that nothing seemed disgusting to her sensibilities. When mom found her munching on dog biscuits while watching TV Susan tattled her that I had told her to eat them when she was hungry. My mother gave me a withering look and ordered Susan to the corner and then moved the dog biscuit bag to a higher shelf in the closet. I think that her tattling policy was supposed to hinge on remorse felt by the wrongful party (me) which would lead to moral feels of guilt and compassion toward the wronged party (my sister). Sure, I knew right from wrong (I just had a large gray area and believed in pushing the envelope), but I couldn’t help from manipulating situations to my advantage especially when I was rewarded for being so creative.
My mother waited until after I had graduated from college to ask me why I thought I was passed on class after class in elementary school when my grades didn’t support advancement. (Thanks Mom, way to reenforce that I had been such a loser!) My peers wondered this at the time too, and weren’t subtle about it either. I never wondered because I didn’t care. My teachers didn’t seem thrilled to see me each September but then again I wasn’t too excited to be their classrooms. The only one excited to go to schoolevery day in any weather was my sister and she was rewarded by being the teacher’s pet. I never held this against her, her drive for achievement amused me, I’d been playing school with her ever since I went to kindergarten and she did extremely well with rote exercises. I disliked rote learning and responded better using my imagination and with fixing things. I had little patience with slow readers that dragged down my reading groups and busy work just tipped me over the edge. I loathed SRA self correction time fillers and it was for that reason I never was first or even 15th turning in any assignments. I had the teacher’s routine and triggers figured out pretty early in the school year to be able to breeze through with little effort – which was what my mother was asking me about after graduation: why wasn’t I ever retained because I had certainly deserved to be according to all indications?
It turned out that I had the highest IQ test score of my class, of the school even, higher than Lee’s score, a notable student and a measure all other students (except me) measured themselves against. I was a grade school genius but acted like a future highschool drop-out. What I would have done with this information (which was exactly why I had never been told – I guess I was more obvious than I thought!) if I had it when I was in fifth grade and Mrs. F____ asked me to call out my spelling dictation test grade so she could record it in her grade book. She couldn’t even be bothered to get out of her seat to collect the tests from each row, or even ask a student helper to collect the tests. 43, I said softly. What? she said, raising her voice. Every face now turned in my direction as I said 43 a little louder. I can’t hear you, you’ll have to speak up, she called out. This caused the boys to snicker, so I defiantly said 43 just a little louder. The teacher knew she was in a stand-off and that by the time she recorded my 43 she knew she lost. The 43 became a token grade, that even though it was the lowest, or near lowest, my self-esteem was increased because I had stood up to her bullying and degrading methods.
My feistyness bewildered my classmates, they couldn’t figure me out which made them uncomfortable and I wasn’t invited into their social circles too often. Feisty was my middle name, I was tall and stood up for myself – in all honesty I was passive-aggressive but my classmates didn’t know this. Plus, I never did any homework and put off projects to the last-minute. My firstand last names were never erased from the blackboard throughout the entire 3rd grade school year, kids made sure to clean the board around my name leaving it emblazoned forever in my memory. The only thing I learned that year was that the The Wizard of Oz had been filmed in color – I had a black and white TV at home just like 97% of the other students and faculty – but Ursula watched it on her color TV and informed the class that the munchkins had greenish skin and that Dorothy’s shoes were red. I also learned about social class distinctions that year (haves vs. have-nots) which was not 3rd grade curriculum even though that’s what put the public in public school. I struggled with new math and speaking French, but mostly I failed to thrive. I wasn’t challenged until 6th grade and by that time it was almost too late, what saved me was Mark Twain’s essays, Frye School and Mr. Le Clair. I shared my frustrations with my sister and to her credit she didn’t laugh at me or run and tell mom, she helped me soldier on.
Sure, I took advantage of my sister’s innocence, it would have been just plain wrong not to, and I needed someone to do things that I didn’t want to be caught doing. And, more importantly, I had to make it so my sister would offer to do things for me to keep up the goodwill – we needed each other – I inspired her imagination and she was the buffer between me and my mother. Susan’s need for fairness often broke the strain of our mother’s silent treatment directed at me – Susan would intervene on my behalf and try to convince my mother that even though I was a bad girl I had redeemable qualities. Susan was the peacemaker and my assigned role was troublemaker, this didn’t change until I left for college, leaving Susan on her own to fill my shoes. Susan wasn’t prepared to handle both roles set up by my mother, after all she had never been a real bad girl.
When Susan and I were on the same page and I wasn’t too bossy, our relationship was rosy and we were up to our old tricks. I looked out for Susan and made sure that she knew I would take the heavy consequences if caught. We were a good twosome, Susan would eat the parts of my sandwich that I refused to eat, loved to wash dishes to my wiping them, loved cooking with mom to my gardening and mowing with dad. She was yin to my yang, my petty-thief-in-training and excellent lookout, we had a whole black market secret world going on for us that no adult was even aware of, especially our mother. Susan was Bat Girl to my Cat Women. Pretty good, huh? Oh, and Susan finally gave up her need to tell on me, my mother’s tattling policy was corrected and revised when our brother was born … but that’s another story.
I wonder Kat if your mother’s tattling policy was listed in Dr. Spock’s book, because my neighbor’s mom used it too.
* * *
Since I grew up without siblings my only inkling of what the sibling experience was like, was through watching life at the neighbors house. The dad of this particular household worked long hours as a veterinarian for both small and large animals and was hardly ever home. He was the only vet for miles and so frequently was called out in the night to help birth a stuck calf or sew up some beloved coon hound. The mom was also a repeat missing figure but for reasons that never were clarified. She didn’t work but left in the early AM each day and came back around 2 with a bag or two of groceries. Out of those bags came things we didn’t have at our house – packages of Kool-Aid, gallons of ice-cream, Marshmallow Fluff, Wonder Bread, pretzels, Spam , and Jiffy Pop Popcorn.
While the adults were away each day all matters of importance were left in the oldest siblings hands. This fell to the eldest boy named Ronnie who was just shy of 14 at the time. Next in line was his brother Paul of 12 and last a sister Sue of 10 of whom was my friend. The house rules were simple: Whatever the eldest said went. Anyone who tattled on who did what wrong when was sent to their room without supper. Anything broken by anyone and the eldest needed to pay for it out of his allowance.
Now I had always wished I had a sibling to fill the need for sheer loving companionship on rainy days, early Sat. AM’s and car trips. I imagined having a sibling was something like having a golden retriever who loved you unconditionally, and always wanted to do what you wanted. This vision however I found out was sadly flawed.
There was never a more clear example of the flaw than what took place between the three siblings I have mentioned.
The Door Incident.
Sue and I were playing ping-pong in her basement next to Ron’s new pad. Ron had moved out as they say, from the family atmosphere of upstairs to the basement atmosphere of solitude. Many an older boy even today move to basements in order to blast their music, stay up late, and start mini fires in the bottoms of soda cans. Go figure on the last one as Kat says.
On this day when both the mother and dad were away like in the story of The Cat in the Hat, Sue and I quickly grew bored of playing ping-pong and decided next to play indoor soft ball. The room was as we saw it plenty spacious and we had found a dusty ball. All that was lacking were bases and those needed to be flat. High and low we searched for the right fit and just about when we were ready to give up we spied a stack of record covers in a wooden milk crate by Ron’s door. They looked perfect so we carefully took the records themselves out and put them between the other records. Next we placed our bases out in anticipation. Sue had just hit an imaginary home run when Ron came down to see his sister slide into home base and in doing so tear the record cover. Ron scanned the bases and immediately went ballistic verbally and physically. Sue growing up with older boys snarled back which caused him to chase after us. Only by chance were we able to miss being caught as he lunged at us and and make it upstairs to Sue’s bedroom and lock the door in the nick of time. Ron made it to the door right behind us and in finding it locked managed to let out a loud howl and proceeded to shake the door with earthquake vigor. It did not magically open and this greatly disappointed Ron. After much yelling back and forth between Sue and her brother, it became crystal clear we would be as good as dead if we opened the door as Ron was demanding. Ron meanwhile went into Rambo mode. An ax lay near the cook out pit not far from the basement patio door and he spend off to get it. Soon back he started to chop down the door. Upon seeing the ax slice through a few times we took the liberty to alter our plans and head for the window. Just as we were 1/2 out Ron managed to reach through the hacked door and unlock it. Our feet hit the ground and we ran back around the house towards the drive way. It seemed Sue was bent on re-entering the house like a fool. Why we didn’t run to another house for help I don’t know. Before we had a chance to re-inter the inferno Sue’s mom pulled into the drive way. Instantly we blurted out the crime that had been committed against us.
For tattle tailing Sue was sent to her room without supper 3 nights straight. For breaking the door Ron was handed his allowance each week by dad only to have to hand it directly back. I hung low over at my house the rest of the summer or asked Sue to come play there instead.
43 years later I am raising my own adopted daughter as an only child. At times I feel guilty that the only child syndrome is repeating itself. Other times especially after listening to some of my closest friends complain about the insensitivity of their own siblings, I am able to get past the guilt.
Some say on a spiritual level we choose our own families before we are even born. I disagree and believe shit just happens and we get what we get by chance. Either way I’ve come to notice the dynamics of families and siblings more since that experience. I’ve learned a few things: Where you are in the order of siblings counts. Being a twin counts. Being one year apart or ten counts. Being good at school or too smart for it counts. Being the one willing to go out hunting with dad counts. Being a child of two parents or one counts. Being a child that was adopted counts. Being raised by two lesbian mothers or two gay fathers counts. Being a foster child counts. Being an only child counts. Being in a family period counts.
*** It’s the being with others – even if it’s only a grandmother raising you that teaches us how to ultimately get along with others in close quarters, that counts. This skill is necessary as an adult when you work in office cubicles. It’s also useful when riding a bus in close quarters. If you do have a sibling or siblings my hope is that before your parents die you make peace concerning the injustices you experienced. There are siblings that don’t talk to each other, and siblings that vie for their parents attention even into their 50ties, and others that continue to tattle. Life is short and so my wish is that you try and remember the good things and let go of the bad. It’s odd how siblings can grow up under the influence of the same parents and yet turn out so differently. How can one remain catholic as they were brought up and the other turns to Bahi-ism? While I hope that more siblings learn by the end of their lifetime to get along, exceptions must be made. Some siblings when born get bruised when they fall out and turn rotten like a drop apple. One might even become a murderer. God for bid. In those instances doing the right thing means turning in your sibling. While a mother may still love them and believe they deserve a second chance, you are not required to especially if there was incest. Love is unconditional up to a point. Know where that point is. Anything short of that point find the blessing in your connection.