In the summer of 1998 I ruined my kids’ chances for success. They can skip expensive years of therapy to find out whom to blame for their failures in life: me.
We awoke at the crack of noon that summer day in ‘98. I think breakfast was leftover cake. It may as well have been whiskey and cigarettes. The kids watched TV from the moment they woke up—stupid TV. And blew off their chores. And sat around the house. And lolled about on the couch while I drove through McDonalds for our lunch. We were going to rent a video, but that was too much effort. We toyed with the idea of going to the library, but no one wanted to bother looking for his shoes.
My sons savored the absence of normal expectations. I was stuck between enjoying the decadence of it all and being overwhelmed by guilt. We could have been at the museum. We could have been on a hike. We could have been discussing world events and organizing protests, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns. It was a sunny day in July. No appointments to keep, no work that urgently needed to get done. No one was fighting a cold. No reason to sit in the house watching TV and eating junk food. No reason at all.
I wondered if anyone else had days like this but I knew I’d never find out because I was never going to tell anyone about it. I knew this one unproductive day was not going to suck all the ambition and brilliance out of my kids and, like addicts with their first needle, leave them devoid of any goals other than finding softer couches, greasier food and continuous reruns of VH1’s “Pop Up Video.” But in my other head (the one that houses guilt, self-judgment and recrimination), I was a woefully inadequate and uninspiring mom. Surely Albert Einstein’s parents would not have allowed this. Or Michelle Kwan’s parents. Or my own parents. My parents wouldn’t have been caught dead letting their kids waste an entire day. Those other parents—of Spelling Bee winners and baseball-camp trophy winners and of kids who organize their schools to recycle—those parents probably hit the ground running each morning and kept going until each one of their children was enriched, tutored, coached, rehearsed and perfectly coifed. And those moms probably did their 25 Kegel exercises every evening to keep their pelvic walls toned lest they chose to bear more achievers.
I stretched out on the backyard lounge with that Bill Moyers book I intended to read. Soon, however, I put it aside and began tearing out photos of furniture I liked from the Pottery Barn catalog. I reapplied sunscreen and thought about my tan for about an hour. And then I thought about how shallow I was to be thinking about my tan so I worried about melanomas. But I stayed in the sun. I heard the Saturday suburban sounds of minivans on their way to soccer games and piano recitals. Families on the go. Parents on the job. I was on the chaise. My kids were on the couch.
Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt.
We never sat around when I was growing up. Even when we watched “Sky King” on Saturday morning TV, my dad handed my sister and me sketchpads and colored pencils so our TV time wouldn’t be a total waste. At least draw a picture of what you are seeing on the television. My parents schlepped us to concerts, museums, foreign countries, workshops, classes and live theater. They were patient, inspiring, enthusiastic and utterly generous in their dedication to enrich their daughters’ lives. Naturally, this all came back to bite them in the ass when Karen and I were teenagers.
At the entrance to adolescence, the beginning of the Years of Anger and Angst, my parents took us on a driving trip up the California coast to see Hearst Castle. It was to be educational and inspiring and, most importantly, it was the kind of trip meant to ensure our brains didn’t atrophy on the weekends.
Karen and I did not want to go to Hearst Castle that vacation, let alone with our parents. We wanted to rent a house on Balboa Beach and leave Mom to collect shells at the shore and Dad to set his easel up on the porch and paint. We wanted to lay our towels down on the sand as far as possible from our rented house and apply layer upon layer of blue mascara and white lipstick in the hopes of catching the eye of a local bad boy who might come and sit with us, listen to KRLA on our transistor radio and leave our towels smelling of his cigarette smoke and Sea and Ski. That’s the vacation we wanted.
But my parents prevailed, and the four of us climbed into the station wagon, heading north to San Simeon. Karen and I set up our camp—The Resistance—in the back seat and hunkered down.
It was a very long four hours. By the time we neared the castle, my parents had run out of good cheer for us. Came the inevitable: We work hard to earn the money to take you girls on vacation and give you a little culture and this is the thanks we get. Ah, my poor, naive parents, thinking such admonishments would warm our hearts and allow us to see the error of our ways. That lecture only kicked us into high gear. As we entered the parking lot, Karen got down on the floor of the back seat of the car and pulled me down next to her.
“Stay down!” she whispered, “We are not going to go into the stupid castle!”
Yikes. This was a bold move, even for Karen. I debated to which side I should ally myself. I am not a natural born rebel; I am more of a nervous follower of natural born rebels.
But I stuck with my sister that day. I curled up on the floor of the station wagon and we staged a sit-down strike. Serves my parents right for raising us to be political activists and teaching us the power of strikes and boycotts.
My dad found a parking space and turned off the engine. “Okay, we’re here!” He turned around to the empty back seat.
“We’re not getting out of the car!” we declared from our position. Karen let out what sounded like a growl.
“We drove all day to get here, to see Hearst Castle, and you girls are going in!”
“You can’t make us!” I said. But my voice was shaky and my challenge came out like a question.
“Oh, yes, I can!” My father’s voice sounded a little shaky as well.
I looked at my sister.
Years later, sitting in a dark movie theater, I recognized the look I’d on Karen’s face that moment. It was the face of Norma Rae climbing up onto the table holding her Union sign.
Karen started singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Quietly, at first, still from the floor of the car. I joined in, adding the sweet, matching-timbred harmonies only sisters can create. We sang louder and louder as our courage grew. We belted out the refrain: just like a tree that’s standing in the wa-a-a-ter, we shall not be moved, holding hands and singing our hearts out. Sweet victory.
And then my mom and dad, never able to resist a folk song, started singing along. Loudly. And clapping their hands to the rhythm. Dear God, no. We would not be consorting, much less harmonizing, with the enemy. Karen and I stopped singing and jumped out of the car in a flash. Our parents had trumped us. Without even understanding how.
My sister, never admitting defeat, issued a final proclamation that was to be the battle cry throughout our teenagehood: “Okay, WE’LL GO BUT WE WON’T LOOK!” She nudged me in the ribs and hissed, “Close your eyes.”
And thus, the Brown family visited Hearst Castle that summer afternoon. I didn’t see a thing. We never opened our eyes. We were brilliant. Bravehearts.
Nearly forty years later, at the end of another summer afternoon, my kids and I brought our non-productive, non-cultural, non-artistic day to an end. We finally opened the morning paper. I read only the Living section (truthfully, only the horoscope of the Living section); they perused the sports section. We laughed and chatted through some really bad TV shows, making up our own dialogue and casting the shows with our friends and family. We stared at our dogs for a remarkably long time. My husband came home and the four us just hung out for a while. I went to bed first. As I climbed into bed I made a promise to myself to schlep us all to the coast the next morning for the opening of a Mexican Mask exhibit at a small gallery there. And then maybe we’d sign up for the architectural walking tour of downtown Portland. I drifted off to sleep, hearing the sounds of my husband and sons downstairs laughing together.
It was a most successful day.