“Something happened to my children that I cannot explain and cannot undo. I can’t be good to them, it seems, even when I want to.”—Bob Slocum in Something Happened, by Joseph Heller
In the family of which I constitute one quarter, there are three people of whom I am in total awe. This intense feeling of reverence and tenderness, liberally sprinkled with frustration, resentment, and befuddlement, comes of the knowledge that we four have lived, sometimes together, sometimes apart, for all of my twenty-three years, and have somehow managed to survive as an indestructible family unit. Miracles do happen.
My parents have seen two human creatures through as many ups and downs as the old Coney Island Steeplechase, through our Wonder Bread years, into and beyond those pimply and pudgy pubescent years during which one can metamorphize from a docile lamb into a seething cheetah and back again in seconds. We have withstood the petty traumas and heated arguments to which all families with members possessing brains, hearts, and nervous systems are vulnerable, and now at last my brother and I have entered that dynamite period — our adult years. For all of the delightful verbal acrobatics that our family performs, however, I have always been acutely aware of a gap between old and young which would be impossible to bridge. It is the Upstairs, Downstairs of the nuclear family.
What “happens” to Bob Slocum’s children, that ineffable and awesome thing that he can neither explain nor undo, that change in his children that leaves him feeling so alone and so inept at human contact, is simply that his kids have grown up, have matured. They have sprouted minds, values, morals, and little insular worlds of their own that transcend Slocum’s own domain. A terrible thing, this business of growing up, but it happens to the best of us.
Everything that surrounds a small child seems colossal to him. Parents are giants, puddles are veritable oceans. And it is a sad day indeed when every little girl inevitably learns that her daddy isn’t a prince (unless, of course, he happens to be one). And that parents aren’t gods but only parents. All the Fudgsicles, late nights watching Leave it to Beaver, dolls, and ice-skating jaunts of yesteryear don’t much matter in the end. What does matter, ultimately, is whether or not the influences of my family on myself cause me to feel worthy of such extravagant indulgences today.
My own theory on successful family living is indeed a cynical and depressing one, yet is, I am convinced, foolproof. Learning to live with the members of one’s family involves the painful process of reconciling oneself to the various disappointments in each member. Sad, but true. Add to this recipe for the happy home the stipulation that this process be allowed to unfold with a modicum of hair-tearing, door-slamming, and chest-beating. This brain of mine is certainly no microwave oven — I just know that growing up in a family means adjusting yourself to the shortcomings of those immediately around you, realizing their limitations and being glad that they are no more abundant than they are. I am wholly convinced that the mind makes the trip, and even if mama and papa have nurtured that mind there has to be a day when one awakens to the fact that he is solely responsible for himself. For myself, family life is the experience of simply jumping in and getting wet, grabbing all the good I can possibly get from it all and then going out into the world to transcend the disappointments. The umbilical cord was created in order to be cut, I’m certain.
At any rate, everyone seems pleased with the way I’ve taken command. (Ha, ha.)