“The Brady Bunch Turned Upside Down”
by Emma Macmillan
“What the hell do you mean? You filled up your gas tank and you don’t have the money to pay for it!” says the gas station attendant with a snarl. The “customer” offers to work off his debt – sweep the floor, take out the trash, stock the shelves.
A sympathetic woman with her two daughters overhears the exchange and offers to pay for the man’s gas. He heads toward the back and returns with a six-pack of Bud Light. “Oh no, I am not paying for that,” the woman contests. She pays for the man’s gas, and they head toward the parking lot.
She plops down in the passenger’s seat. Her daughters jump in the back seat.
And the man climbs into the driver’s seat.
That’s my family. We’re amateur pranksters.
Allow me to introduce you to the cast of characters:
Mom/Peggy: sincere, earnest, enlightened, unintentionally funny, sweet, heart of gold, selfless, nurturing, teacher, nerdy/smart, empathetic listener, liberal
Favorite mom quote: We drive by a billboard that reads, “Jesus will return.” Mom says, “Who said he left?”
Dad/Patrick: funny, engaging storyteller, psychiatrist, sports fan, athletic, slightly self-centered, crazy in a functional way, generous, cover band front man
Favorite childhood memory: Dad told improvised tales of a hero named Captain Stink who saved the day, damsel, world, etc., by farting. We never had to imagine farts; Dad always had one ready by the time he reached the climax of the story.
Sister/Katie: sharp as a tack, impatient, medical student, intense, great at games, mature, feisty, athletic
Favorite Katie-ism: Despite her extremely empathic nature, she laughs when people fall over or trip.
Back to the parking lot.
We’re sitting in my mom’s used luxury car that consistently overheats. Mom earnestly insists we tell the cashier we tricked him. The rest of us don’t want mom to ruin the prank.
Never mind our warnings. Mom walks back into the Shell and reveals our ruse to the gas station attendant: “We were just kidding around! That’s my husband and those are my daughters,” she sweetly explains. He’s bemused and definitely not amused.
What mom should have said: “We’re a weird family that felt like lying for our own amusement. We can’t offer you any money or TV appearance to compensate for your embarrassment. Sorry?”
Mom returns to the car, satisfied with her attempt at closure. Dad feels a pang of Catholic guilt. Katie and I are still reeling from the excitement of our first prank. We drive away, a mixed bag of emotions.
Fast forward a few years.
Katie and I glance at each other. “We didn’t order pizza.” As the Pizza Hut deliveryman double-checks the address, Katie innocently speaks up, “Well, my mom and dad got in a big fight…”
“Shut up!” I yell. “My dad must have ordered the pizza…He’s living in the van in our driveway.”
The Pizza Hut guy tentatively knocks on the side of our 1979 rusty Chevy van. Dad swings open the door. In full view is the grey foldout bed and shag carpet. “Sorry about all this. I know it’s a little uncomfortable,” he says.
Dad hands the delivery dude a Ziploc bag of one-dollar bills and assorted change. Pizza Hut doesn’t even count the money.
Through the years, various details have been added to the re-telling of this tale. Katie claims I slapped her. I insist I didn’t. Dad always reminds everyone he included a generous tip.
As you may have guessed, Mom suggests we reveal our prank to Pizza Hut, but we remind her of the gas station. She agrees not to call. Or maybe she does call. We can’t seem to remember.
I grew up in a playful home where shenanigans were not only allowed but also encouraged. My parents recognize that life’s too short to be too serious. Our humor may not be for everyone, but it’s for us.
We continue to engage in silliness, chanting “three terms for Bush” at Obama’s inauguration, wildly entertained by passersby bewildered looks. Or taking photos with a Venice Beach bum holding a sign that says, “Smile if you masturbate.”
We’re a cast of characters, and I’m just glad I made the cut.
“Open Letter to My Babysitter Who Left Because Her Mother Was Sick”
by Samantha Rodman
This is a tough letter for me to write. And not only because I have to type while caring for a one year old and working from home. I was really upset to hear, again, about your mother, on our last day together three weeks ago. It must be hard on you both when she fell ill only two days after that car accident. I really value that you were open with me about how your mother needed you and therefore you were unable to work anymore. I appreciated the day of notice that you gave me and I’m sorry I used it to frantically call my clients and other potential sitters, and not to empathize with your subjective experience.
It must be difficult to be the daughter of a woman who continually falls ill and requires your help so frequently. This brings to me why I am writing. I know this may be a sensitive subject, but have you ever considered that your mother may be suffering from Munchausen syndrome? It is a painful reality that people do not generally suffer from as many consecutive maladies as have reportedly befallen your mother unless there is not a psychosomatic issue at play. As you know, I know about these sorts of issues, being a psychologist (although you wouldn’t guess I’m employed at all from how much work I’ve had to take off in recent weeks, ha ha! No judgment).
I’ve been contemplating our earliest interactions, wondering if there were signs of your mother’s disorder even from the beginning of our relationship, five weeks ago. During our interview, you were constantly checking your text messages. At the time, I chose to ignore this behavior, thinking I was being a real throwback not to acknowledge the importance, nay, integrality, of text messages to your generation. Also you were the only Care.com sitter to respond to my advertisement and show up at (approximately) the scheduled interview time. Yet, despite trying to be forward-thinking and tolerant (necessary in my profession!), I admit to feeling apprehensive when you first held the baby and did not make eye contact due to rapid texting, almost dropping him when he squirmed. I wondered if perhaps you were self-centered and unreliable. Now I feel guilty for these unspoken character assassinations (but I am willing to own them!) as I am willing to wager it was it your mother again, plucking at your heartstrings through her calculated emotionally manipulative texts. But hindsight is 20-20, as they say.
During the first week, you were late three out of five days because your mother was experiencing vertigo. This was difficult because my baby was trying to bond to you, and you were not reliably present. I restrained myself from discussing how harmful this inconsistency can be for a 10 month old in the throes of separation anxiety. (It is this sort of restraint and self-control that allows me to excel as a therapist, even with clients who really press my buttons!) I also did not wish to embarrass you by pointing out that the word vertigo is pronounced with a short “i”. But, in retrospect, this mispronunciation makes me confident that your mother was pulling the wool over your eyes when she informed you that her doctor told her that she needed you present when she showered and dressed.
Did you ever actually see this doctor in the flesh? I am betting not. Given her condition, it is probable that your mother researches frightening-sounding disorders and pretends to be afflicted, thereby passively blackmailing you into coddling her, and thwarting your natural attempts at individuation, such a difficult and necessary life task at age 22. Knowing that you might lose your job for lateness or receive a reprimand from your employer would not dissuade a woman this mentally unstable from engaging in her textbook manipulation tactics. And of course, neither outcome occurred, because I was understanding and empathic, as is my wont, at least according to my colleagues and clients! (Also, there were no other sitters for less than $15 per hour which is honestly ridiculous to sit with one baby in a house. I accept insurance and let me tell you, I am not making anywhere what you think I would be, as a PhD in private practice. Don’t get me started on the egregiousness of reimbursement under managed care.)
The following week, you had to take off two days because your mother had “women’s issues.” I don’t mean to be indelicate, but did you specifically observe or inquire as to what sorts of difficulties your mother was experiencing? Could it not be possible that you were being hoodwinked yet again? Your mother may be so terrified of being alone and abandoned (abuse history? Highly likely) that inventing attention-grabbing physical illnesses is the only way she knows to keep you tethered to her emotionally. An umbilical cord of obligation, if you will. (That phrase is from my upcoming article about mother-daughter relationships. Feel free to use it, of course with citations. I’m hoping it will become popular with laypeople. I also like the acronym: UCOO. Long “u.”)
The following two weeks, preceding what I did not know at the time would be your final week, were a blur of caring for your mother (for you) and cancelled appointments and increasing stress and financial anxiety (for me). I began to realize that something was amiss in regards to your mother’s supposed health concerns when you were inconsistent in reporting the nature of her troubles. One day you said it was migraines and the next, a gastrointestinal virus. When I gently tried to probe further, having the germ of Munchausen’s in the back of my mind (My love of complex diagnostic riddles can’t just turn off in non-treatment settings. I’m like the “House” of psychology, ha ha), you were defensive and even a bit rude. This is classic enabler behavior; you were trying to throw me off the scent, hoping I would not realize what you undoubtedly know deep in your subconscious: that your mother is a troubled soul, and her unrelenting psychic pain gives rise to an array of factitious illnesses.
When you took off work for your mother’s car accident, returned for only the Wednesday of our last week together, and informed me in an offhand tone that it would be your last day as our sitter because your mother had been diagnosed with scarlet fever, I finally allowed the Munchausen’s diagnosis to swim to consciousness. I did not feel comfortable enough at the moment to bring this idea up in person, and I was feverishly attempting to reschedule my (few remaining) clients). I feel that this letter is a less awkward venue in which to address this sensitive issue (and I have a lot of time on my hands since I can’t get into the office, ha ha!).
I pride myself on my well-honed diagnostic talent (although my colleagues insist that my research skill is equally praiseworthy, particularly for one who is primarily a clinician!), so I am a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to arrive at the Munchausen’s diagnosis. To my credit, I was thrown a bit off balance with worry about my clients leaving due to my unpredictable and frequent cancellations (ironic as this was due to your myriad absences; knowing the back story, though, I am not blaming the victim!). But, after reviewing the evidence and recounting the excuses that you conveyed to me, I am certain that this is the truth, and that you deserve to know it, as I am sure that you already do in some shadowy corner of your subconscious. When you continue your studies at the community college (you said “if,” but I have faith in you!), you may learn about Occam’s Razor, or the idea that the simplest possible explanation is often the likeliest. If you would like to refer your mother to me, I would love to meet her, and to guide her out of the emotional labyrinth in which she is so miserably and inexorably trapped.
Incidentally, I recently ran into the colleague who referred you to me, and she said she thought that you were a recent transplant from Florida, and your family still lived there. Is this a fable that you concocted because you were embarrassed to be living with your mother and all of your younger siblings in a two bedroom apartment? Please, don’t let your life be characterized by lies and deception. Confronting your mother and guiding her to get the treatment she needs is the first step to an enlightened and authentic life.
Dr. Samantha Rodman