Monkey see, monkey do

My grandparents had a big mimosa tree in their yard that was perfect for climbing if you were a girl about 9 years old. One summer day I wanted to climb the mimosa tree, but my aunt said I shouldn’t because her son was there, and he was too young to climb a tree. Then to clarify her point she added, “monkey see, monkey do”. This was the first time I had heard that phrase, so I begged an explanation. She told me that whatever I did my cousin would want to do. I didn’t get to climb the tree that day, but that was okay because I had a lot to think about.

If I had looked at it from another perspective I would have realized that monkey see, monkey do was a familiar dynamic in my life. But I was used to being the little monkey, always wanting to do what my big sister did. [It occurs to me that my sister needs a pseudonym. I can’t go on calling her “my big sister” forever. So, what the Hell… let’s call her Marcia] I was forever apeing Marcia, and she’d call me a copycat, I’d say no I’m not, and it went on and on and on. The concept wasn’t new to me at all, but it looked new. I was the big monkey? Amazing. I immediately began to think about how I would test my new found power.

I was an insomniac from my earliest memory, so I was always the last one to wake up. The day after the day I didn’t get to climb the mimosa tree, I woke up (last, as usual) at my aunt’s house. I went in to the kitchen for breakfast. Everyone else was finished, except for my cousin. He was still sitting at the table with a bowl full of cereal, and across from him was a place set for me, with my empty cereal bowl. Without saying a word I picked up my empty bowl and flipped it over onto my head. My aunt walked into the kitchen just in time to see her precious baby boy pick up his bowl full of cereal, and make good on her prophecy.

The Wake-up Fairy wars

I had a nemisis in kindergarten. That probably says something terrible about me, but there it is… I had a nemisis. I can’t remember her name now, or anything else about her. I can’t remember why we hated each other, but we were in constant competition for the entire year.

There wasn’t much to compete for in church kindergarten but each day we would have nap time, and the kid who could be the quietest during nap time would be named “The Wake-up Fairy”. It may seem like a dubious honor, but being Wake-up Fairy came with privledges. First, the Wake-up Fairy got to wake up before all of the other children. Then he or she would be given the wake-up wand (which looked remarkably like a yardstick). It was his or her job to tiptoe around the room tapping the little children on the shoulder one by one to wake them up. You got to pick who woke up first, so the Wake-up Fairy had a little bit of power.

Every day my nemisis and I would compete fiercly for the title of Wake-up Fairy. I’m sure it would be a tough contest for most 5 year-olds, but the nemisis and I took it to a level that was untouchable by anyone else in the class. It was the hardest thing I did all day. It was impossible to relax but the slightest movement would be a forfeit, so I would spend nap time lying on my mat with every muscle tensed, stiff as a board, and absolutely motionless. It was rare that I lost. She was weak…maybe she was actually trying to nap.  Whatever the cause, she couldn’t hold a candle to me. I believe I still hold the world record for Wake-up Fairy titles.

So each day. I would tip-toe around the class room, wake-up wand in hand, and I’d wake my classmates one by one, starting with the ones I liked best that day. As I performed by Wake-up Fairy duties, I would keep one eye on the teacher, and as soon as I was able to verify that she was thoroughly distracted, I would wander over to my nemesis and, with a tight grip on my wand, I’d whack her on the head!

Oh fork!

Every summer, since my great-great-grandfather died, my father’s family has had a family reunion. Dozens of people come from around the country, sometimes from other countries, for a potluck lunch and a chance to see one another. Many of the people you meet there are strangers, a few are people you know, and some are folks that you only see once each summer.

The format is familiar: each family brings food sufficient for themselves, then all the food goes on a long table for potluck. Each family also brings their plates, utensils, napkins, drinks, and whatever else they might need. My grandmother always packed her giant picnic basket, with food sufficient for her family plus a large bear, and all of the necessary tools.

One year, after the reunion, my grandmother unpacked her picnic basket and among her Tupperware, wicker plate holders and the old, scratched stainless flatware, she found a fork that didn’t belong. She couldn’t stand the thought of someone worrying about that fork, so she immediately called everyone she knew to ask if they were missing one. No one claimed it. At last she admitted that she had no choice but to take it back to the reunion next year to reunite it with it’s owner. She didn’t want to forget, so she kept that old fork on her dresser, front and center, where she would see it every day.

When the family gathered for Christmas at my grandparents house, someone spotted the fork on the dresser and Grandma was forced to tell the story. Tipsy with eggnog and punch, everyone, including my grandmother, had a good laugh at her expense. The best joke of all was when this very proper, grey-haired little lady swore that she hadn’t stolen that sad, old fork. She took quite a bit of teasing about it that day and for the next 6 months, while the fork remained in its place of honor on her dresser.

The next summer, as planned, Grandma packed up her giant picnic basket, carefully placing the stray fork among the Tupperware, and wicker plate holders and such. They got there early, as they usually did, and as each new family arrived Grandma would ask them if they had lost a fork last year. Of course, like Christmas, it became the popular joke of the day. People were laughing, and asking one another if they had lost a fork last year. Finally, late in the day, one of the relatives looked at the fork again and said, “you know, I think this is one of my old forks”. She tossed it into her picnic basket, and the year-long quest was over, the mystery solved.

Grandma had packed her giant picnic basket for the trip home, this time without any stray utensils, and was preparing to leave. As she went around the room and said her goodbyes, my father picked up a fork from a nearby table, and quietly slipped it into her basket.

Which way do you color?

When I was 4 years old I was enrolled in nursery school at our church. I was so happy to be going to school. My sister had been to school, and she knew so much more than me. I wanted to do everything she did, and know everything that she knew. On the first day of nursery school, as Mom was dropping me off at the curb, I saw an Asian boy. My sister told me he was Chinese (he must have been, because my sister said so). My first day of school, I hadn’t even gotten out of the car yet, and already I had seen a whole new kind of person that I never saw before! School was going to be great!

Imagine my disappointment when I found out we were going to color. I wasn’t disappointed the first day, of course. I liked coloring, and now I had a whole pack of 8 fat crayons, brand new, in a box with my name on it. We also had the daily distraction of cookies and Kool-Aid to keep us from noticing, but eventually it was clear… this was a coloring class. And worse yet, the teacher was very serious about coloring. She had rules.

In fact, she had one rule. We were to color side-to-side. This was very important. So important that there was a song she taught us to sing:

When I color I go side-to-side
When I color I go side-to-side

I suspect she wrote it herself. She would walk around the room, inspecting our artwork, and woe be to the unfortunate little boy or girl who was caught coloring in any manner other than side-to-side. Not only would she announce your transgression to the class, but she would also then ask the class to sing the side-to-side song, in hopes that this mnemonic device would aid you in your coloring.

I don’t want to brag, but I was pretty good at coloring. I’d been coloring for a while by the time I got to nursery school. Not only had I already learned that using consistent crayon strokes creates a pleasing look, but I could also stay in the lines. I had even learned some advanced techniques from the older girls down the street, like how to outline an area with a dark color (press down hard) and fill in the space with a lighter shade of the same color (don’t press down so hard). And I had been coloring long enough to know that I did my best work on the diagonal. I was not going to allow this woman to control my artistic expression! I would not let her indoctrinate me with her side-to-side propaganda!

I quietly rebelled by tilting my paper and coloring diagonally.

How God saved my life

When I was about 5 years old my father painted the bedroom I shared with my sister. In the process, he discovered some crayon artwork that one of us had done on the walls. No one got in trouble for it, but he assured us that the next person who wrote on any walls would pay for it with their life. My dad was not one to make idle threats, and we all knew that graffiti was now an extremely dangerous activity in our house, and especially in our freshly painted bedroom. That probably should have been the end of it.

One day, not long after the paint dried, my father had a reason to come into our bedroom, and he spied a tiny spot on the wall, just above my bed. He moved closer to investigate, and as he got near he saw that it was, without a doubt, a word. One word, written in magic marker, on the wall he had just painted. His anger was building, but so was his curiosity, so before he set about making good on his promise to execute the next child who wrote on a wall, he moved even closer to see what the offending child had written. And there, in my childish handwriting, were three little letters: “GOD”. Try as he might, not even my father could bring himself to punish a child for writing the word God on a wall. I was saved.

Years later, when I was an adult, my father told that story at a family gathering and we all had a laugh about it. But he didn’t know the rest of the story!

I very clearly remember the day I wrote God on the wall above my bed. My older sister was telling me something she had learned in school that day. She always learned everything first, of course, and as the little sister I was fascinated whenever she brought home some new bit of knowledge to share with me. That day she taught me that some words, if you spelled them backwards, would make entirely different words. I was skeptical. She gave me an example, so I could see for myself. “Try dog”, she said.

Every name in the book

Here’s my father, in a nutshell (which is probably where he belongs) –

If you don’t know him, he looks pretty intimidating.

If you’re an acquaintance, he’s the best guy in the world.

If you know him well, you have to admit he’s a bit of an ass.

If you’re family, he’s a selfish, hateful tyrant.

If you live with a tyrant, you learn how to negotiate that tyrant. My siblings and I were quite young when we figured this out.

First, you have to realize that his anger is illogical and unpredictable. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s all about him. You could do the same thing 20 days in a row with no trouble, but on day 21 it might be a capital crime. He’ll start yelling, and you just listen. Under no circumstances should you attempt to defend yourself.

At some point he will ask you why you did something or other. This is a trap. If you attempt any explanation you will only prolong the yelling. Instead, adopt your most pathetic expression and say the words, “I don’t know”. He will yell at you for not knowing, but trust me on this… “I don’t know” is the quickest route to the end, which is your goal.

Be alert for a change in the volume and tempo of his rant. When he begins to run out of steam, this is your cue to start crying. Do not cry while he is still in a full rage. This will cause him to offer to “give you something to cry about”, and it will prolong the episode. When the time is right, begin to cry. Use any device you need at this point. Try thinking of your last hamster that died, or that cute boy who never pays attention to you in class. Providing he has worn himself out a little by yelling, the tears will cause him to feel some guilt. He is a tyrant, but even his cruelty has boundaries, and he can only scream at a crying kid for so long before he folds.

By the time I reached my teen years we had all been working this routine as long as I could remember.  We had it down to a science. But one day… and I can’t explain why… righteous rebellion, maybe… one day I decided that I wasn’t going to play the game. He yelled, I defended myself. He yelled more, I stood up straighter. The time came to cry, and my eyes remained dry. He yelled and screamed for so long that I think the rest of the family got bored. And finally he ran out of things to say. I was hoping he would just wander off at this point, but instead he began what I like to call The Litany of Insults.

He started with something simple, like “You’re selfish!”. I was getting bored myself at this point, so I echoed what he said, “I’m selfish”. Then the next… “You’re ungrateful!”… “I’m ungrateful”… and down the line we went. He called me every name he could think of, some more profane than others, and each time I followed up with the response. It went on, and on, and on, and to his credit, I don’t think he ever repeated a single one. And then finally it happened… my father… master of insults… virtuoso of profanity… had run out of things to call me. There was a pause, and then, from the dimmest recesses of his memory, he found it… one last insult.  “You’re a ne’er-do-well”.

According to the routine we had established in this conversation, my response should have been, “I’m a ne’er-do-well”. But I didn’t say, “I’m a ne’er-do-well”. Instead I stood there, biting my lower lip, and focusing all the effort I could summon into keeping the corners of my mouth from rising. In all of our practice at being yelled at, no one had ever attempted laughing at him, but instinctively I knew this would be a bad, bad move. We stood there for a minute or two, and finally he walked off one way and I went the other way. I ran into my room, buried my face in my pillow to muffle the sound, and laughed like I had never laughed before.

To this day I still occasionally get called a ne’er-do-well by someone in my family (never my father) and it never fails to cause laughter all around. And you can be sure I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been called every name in the book!