Pay attention. I am not kidding. Really.

Month: November, 2015

Odd #17, Part 2: The Gene Pool

photo of indoor pool with "shallow end" clearly marked

Should be, “Danger! Danger! Danger! Danger!

(If you haven’t read
Odd #17, Part 1, do it.
Otherwise, this Part 2 post
won’t make much sense.)

You know how it is. Families get used to the not-quite-right characters in their midst. They doggedly resign themselves to hunkering down and soldiering on through each embarrassing episode. People who marry into said families, though, are seldom forewarned and, thus, totally unprepared for such unflappable hunkering.

In our case, it wasn’t premeditated, as in “Let’s not tell her fiancé about Great Uncle Kenneth.” Really, no one even thought of it, until it was too late. And my unsuspecting fiancé didn’t think to ask as we were dating, “Now, there are no blatant eccentricities in your family, are there?”

Hubby’s
Heartbreaking Plunge

It was our first spring break as newlyweds. My new husband and I had driven 500 miles so that he could get to know my family a little better. Oh my. Neither of us had any idea just how much better he would know us all by the end of that fateful spring break. In fact, even now, after 46-plus years of marriage, he can still get a little peevish when retelling it.

We arrived Saturday night. Sunday dawned, a day for morning worship and then a deliciously long afternoon with no homework, no library research – just a well-earned, delightfully long nap and whatever else we felt like doing. Well, not exactly. The Kenneth-Genevieve Act was about to debut. (See, I said if you skipped Part 1, not much would make sense. You’re already lost, aren’t you? Go read Part 1!)

Now just try to imagine yourself plunked down into the middle of this drama with absolutely no warning.

You hear a car a little distance away on the limestone gravel road, which sounds like it’s slowing down. You watch your new father-in-law propel himself out of his recliner, roaring, “Uncle Kenneth!!!!” You watch, slack-jawed, as this normally soft-spoken and dignified man dashes out the front door, shoving on his slippers, stumbling as he goes.

Your new mother-in-law sprints to the kitchen, sticks her head deep into the freezer, and begins feverishly pawing through frozen packages of who-knows-what.

Your sweet, 11-year-old sister-in-law jerks the toss pillows out from behind your back and plumps them furiously. “Up!” she commands, suddenly becoming very bossy and very intent. The steely look in her eyes convinces you to do as you’re told, even if it is just a little 11-year-old barking the orders; you get up off that couch.

As she moves on to straightening the magazines and newspapers and you stand there in the middle of this flurry, you realize your new wife has raced to the bathroom. Is she ill? You follow. Nope; she’s furiously cleaning, as if The Queen herself is about to make an appearance.

Well, well, you might be prone to think. You lucky bloke! You’ve married into money and didn’t even know it. By now, you’ve decided to join your frenzied in-laws, and you race out to stand beside your new father-in-law and greet the filthy-rich relatives that everyone in the family is working so hard to impress. Hmm. They don’t look rich. Ah, well, most of her relatives who are well off don’t want anyone to know, so maybe these people are cut from the same cloth.

You’re introduced to Great Uncle Kenneth and Great Aunt Genevieve. Something doesn’t seem quite right. You listen. You laugh. You participate in painfully polite conversation, mainly because visions of dollar signs are dancing in your head. You try to figure out what the heck is going on.

As if on cue, your mother-in-law, wife, and little sister-in-law pop up from the sofa and excuse themselves to prepare “a little something” in the kitchen. That leaves you, your father-in-law, and Great Aunt Genevieve as the entire audience for Great Uncle Kenneth’s monologue.

Right before you in the living room is being played out the strangest scene you could’ve imagined. This relative you’ve never heard of is telling the most pitiful jokes which were, no doubt, hilarious – during the vaudeville era. He’s slapping his knee and saying “D’ya see?” after each “joke.” He’s choking on his own laughter just prior to each ancient punch line. And – here’s the really weird part – your very intelligent father-in-law is politely laughing at this demented old man’s excuses for joke-telling. These people must be way more than filthy rich! you might think.

But then your eye is caught by lots of action in the kitchen where (just out of sight of the rest of the theater audience) your new wife, her mother, and sister are all sitting on the kitchen floor. They’re leaning back against the cabinets, holding their sides, and laughing violently – albeit silently. Hey now. Something’s not quite right with all this. Still, it’s conceivable you might continue to think this strange couple is very wealthy, and that’s why they’re being given such royal treatment.

You could.
But you’d be wrong.

Not for another five hours do you learn just how not-right things really are and how very wrong you are. The Kenneth-Genevieve duo exit stage right, and you’re finally told what you should’ve been told long before your recent wedding ceremony. Your father-in-law simply wants to be respectful to his seriously odd uncle, and so he courteously plays the game. Your new wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are courteous, too, but only up to a point. And that point clearly ends when they can watch you tiptoe through the minefield and give way to hilarious laughter, instead of participating in a very drab, very long, very boring theater experience.

  • The Queen did not come to visit.
  • You have not married into money.
  • Your wife will not inherit a bundle from Great Uncle Kenneth.

Instead, you have just wasted a perfectly good Sunday afternoon on your very short college spring break. In addition, you realize you’ve not only married a rather odd little woman; you now know she’s that way for good reason. She inherited it, and now you’re stuck with the whole lot of them and the inevitable musings about future children coming from this woman’s body and gene pool.

Well, we don’t have to imagine that’s what you might think, if pushed with no warning into this pool. We know, because my dear husband has told me so – many times, in fact. He did not take kindly to being so abruptly and cruelly plunged into my gene pool, even if it was at the shallow end.

The Pay-Attention Points
to This Lengthy Twaddle

One is painfully obvious. For those readers already married, it’s too late for you, as you well know. This pay-attention point is only for the unmarried. (If you know some unmarried young people dangerously close to forming permanent alliances, you might want to send them links to Part 1 and Part 2 of Odd #17. They might save your unsuspecting romantics a great deal of angst.)

Here’s the main pay-attention point: ALWAYS ask, as soon as feasible during a romantic relationship, “So now, there’s no craziness in your family, is there?”

If Hubby had thought to ask this vital fact-finding question, he could’ve got himself out of Dodge in just the nick of time, dodging a boatload of oddness. I would’ve learned that I needed to develop some fool-proof methods of sidestepping that awkward question if another guy I might want to marry should ask it.

Here’s the second pay-attention lesson to this melancholy tale.

  • YOU could be the one with a version of Great Uncle Kenneth lurking in your extended-family tribe. If so, BE VAGUE when asked about your gene pool.
  • Or, let’s just face facts, YOU could be the way-weird one in your family for the same reasons that I am: Great Uncle So-and-So’s cursed genetics. You, too, need to BE VAGUE when asked about your gene pool.

Okay, time
for a little seriousness.

It really is a very, very good idea to get to know your guy or gal and the entire family, asking as many questions as you dare, BEFORE you get very serious about him or her.

Don’t be shy. Be a persistent interrogator because your grandmother was right: we do, indeed, marry a family – not just one person. And that family may have produced a certain percent of weirdness in your beloved that can’t be mitigated by a lesser percent of lifestyle attempts to overcome the weirdness factor. I’m just sayin’.

As you’ll see in Part 3, I didn’t know enough to ask the “any craziness?” question, but you can learn from my mistake.

Addendum: None of the names in Odd #17, Parts 1 & 2, have been changed to protect the innocent – because they’re not innocent.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Every family has a weird relative. If you don't know who it is, then it's probably you.” – Anonymous

From a cartoon by Australian, Tim Whyatt

Odd #17, Part 1: The Gene Pool

photo of residential swimming pool

Appears harmless, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled!

You know every family has at least one – the family member who is such an embarrassment no one wants to admit they know him, let alone admit they share the same gene pool. While my mother’s side had so many it was difficult to count them all, things were a good deal simpler on my father’s side of the family.

Way-weird Great Uncle Kenneth

My father’s family had only one: Great Uncle Kenneth. But what a whopper. You know how people sometimes turn weird in their later years? Not Uncle Kenneth. He was born that way and stayed consistently weird as he aged.

My father once told me that even his parents, who were pretty tight-mouthed in their criticism of others, could barely abide Kenneth and his equally weird wife, Genevieve. The story goes that, in an era when 95 percent of women still cooked on wood-burning cook stoves, Aunt Genevieve couldn’t quite get the hang of it and was forever letting the fire go out. Not only did she not have the decency to be embarrassed about this blatant evidence of inept housekeeping skills, she had the gall to go next door to a neighbor – any neighbor – and ask her to come and restart the fire that she, Genevieve, had let die. (An unbelievable faux pas, in those days.)

But fair is fair. Great Aunt Genevieve couldn’t begin to compete with her husband and he, after all, was the blood relative. He was the one with whom we might share, through no fault of our own, the same genes yielding the same idiosyncrasies. She, bless her heart, appeared near-normal when compared with Great Uncle Kenneth.

Of all of Uncle Kenneth’s oddities, his most outstanding was his mistaken conviction that he really belonged on stage as a comedian, instead of on the managerial staff of Eli Lilly. This was by far the trait which caused the most grating of teeth, the most downcast eyes, and the most shuffling off to get another serving of whatever at family reunions. I didn’t mind much, as I was off playing with cousins and wasn’t expected to sit through his monologues.

But then there were those ill-fated Sunday afternoons when he and Great Aunt Genevieve popped in unexpectedly, and THEN I minded. We were all captives then: two adults and two children all sharing the same pain. Having never quite grasped the concept of using a telephone to ensure they were planning to visit at a convenient time, they would simply roar up in a cloud of limestone dust and take us by surprise – almost.

Living on a rock country road as we did, we’d all honed the skill of determining the speed of approaching vehicles and could tell when they were planning to pull into our drive or pass on by. That meant we had, oh say, about three minutes’ notice that way-weird Great Uncle Kenneth and almost-equally-weird Great Aunt Genevieve would be gracing us with their presence that Sunday afternoon.

Our Jobs

We all had our job assignments. My father catapulted himself out of his recliner, slipped on his slippers, and tore out the front door to greet (read: detain) them. Mother flew into the kitchen to tidy up and take a frozen dessert from the freezer to thaw. My very young sister’s job was to straighten the magazines, plump up the toss pillows, and generally tidy up the living room. My job was to clean off the bathroom counter, check the stool, and make sure the towels were just so-so, etc.

Now this sounds like we lived like slobs, when nothing could be further from the truth. I’m quite sure our house always looked ten times better than Great Aunt Genevieve’s ever did. Nevertheless, this was the drill, most likely because my mother kept hoping that if Genevieve were continually presented with a properly kept house, it might rub off. Thus, we could all be spared at least that much of their embarrassing lifestyle. It was a nice sentiment, but overly optimistic.

If my Father had done his job properly, he would have detained them long enough that we’d all completed the drill and were casually lounging in the living room by the time he escorted them into the house.

Showtime!

It wasn’t long before Great Uncle Kenneth launched into his patter of vaudevillian jokes and one-liners. These, I could stand. It was the grating, old-guy voice of “D’ya see?” following each one that began to wear on my nerves rather quickly. Fortunately, my mother’s temperament was about the same. After the seventh or eighth “D’ya see?” she would jump up, offer to prepare some refreshments, and escape to the joke-less reprieve of the kitchen.

I tried to sneak to my room a few times at this same juncture, but was usually hauled back by a lame question from Great Aunt Genevieve. However, once I reached a certain age, I learned I could offer to “help” Mother with the refreshments and was also allowed an escape route. Genevieve must’ve recognized that I was indeed capable of helping. Once I’d reached the helping age, she graciously allowed me to follow my fleeing mother, as we vacated our front row seats in what used to be our living room but was now Great Uncle Kenneth’s theater.

The other irritating thing about these two characters is that they never knew when to leave. I think that’s what caused such groans when we recognized their car. It wasn’t just having to endure banal conversation and really awful jokes. It was knowing that we were sentenced to this drivel for an entire Sunday afternoon. Whatever plans we’d had for a relaxing, nappy, Sunday afternoon were shot to pieces.

And the pay-attention point
would be…?

While you might be the compassionate sort and feel our pain, I know you’re still left wondering. What could possibly be the pay-attention point to such a lengthy bellyaching story?

Good question. This time, there’s only one, and it’s irretrievably tied to the bald fact that none of us get to pick our genes. We inherit them. ALL of them. Scientists used to believe 80 percent of who we are is determined by genetics and 20 percent by lifestyle. Not so long ago, they changed their story. Now, they’re saying it’s the reverse: 20 percent of who we are is determined by genetics and 80 percent by lifestyle. Whew, that’s a welcome switcheroo.

Since scientists keep changing their minds, we don’t really know what the equation is: 80/20, 20/80, 50/50? Who knows? My stark pay-attention tip? Work REALLY, REALLY, REALLY DILIGENTLY on that precious lifestyle percent, whatever it is. Regardless of the percentage, it’s all you’ve got, baby, to protect you from your family’s version of Great Uncle Kenneth.

That’s been my plan all along, as I certainly never wanted to become as odd as Great Uncle Kenneth. Wait: I just realized this isn’t a very encouraging pay-attention point. Since we’re now on my Odd #17 post, with no apparent end in sight, my plan hasn’t worked out very well, has it? But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, darlin’, and TRY HARD.

As for moi, I’ve tried hard, given up, given in, and pretty much decided, as I’ve said in Odd #1, to get over it. Hubby, with 46-plus years to get over his wife’s alarming, odd-infested gene pool, is over it, too. But in the beginning, it was a shocking plunge for an unsuspecting young husband: read how he fared in Part 2 of this Odd #17 post.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “A man with a hump-backed uncle mustn't make fun of another man's cross-eyed aunt.” – Mark Twain

Don’t get too smug; you have one, too, y’know.

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