I had the most interesting conversation with my son the other day.
Jonah, my 24 year-old, is back home living with me during the Corona virus quarantine. He had been living in a house with his dad on the other side of the river, in Edwardsville, Illinois, attending the university there. When the state shutdowns were announced, we hauled part of a trundle bed from my mom’s house over to mine, giving Jonah a mattress to sleep on in our house for the duration. Here, he could stay in one place with his brother. I would keep us stocked with food and the ever-elusive toilet paper; he and his younger brother, already living in the house, could support each other as they navigated the now-completely-online learning environment.
As you might imagine, this new living situation engenders its share of tension. But we’re big talkers in our family. Lines of communication are usually very open. It is the rare occasion where any of us erupts into frustrated shouting. Over the years we have adopted a lot of healthy habits to share our feelings or let things roll off before we get truly angry. So I wasn’t totally surprised when Jonah approached me the other day, hesitantly and with what may have been tears in his eyes.
“Mom,” he said. “I know I’m very sensitive, but something happened this morning that I just don’t think is right.”
“What was it, babe?” I replied, finally turning from my computer screen to face him. I had been typing furiously a few hours earlier, journaling or working on some part of the book I keep saying I’ll write.
“Well… when I woke up this morning and came over to you to say ‘good morning,’ you hardly looked at me. I know you were typing, but it would have taken you two seconds to look up and respond to me. I thought you weren’t nice about it, and I’ve been upset all morning. We are a family,” he continued, “and I just don’t think that’s how family should treat each other.”
Whoa. I had to let that sink in. Jonah had just said far more to me than what it sounded like on its surface.
When I was a very little kid, maybe three years old, I was home with my brother and dad on a Sunday morning. My brother, Steve, all of five or six himself, taunted me that he had received a whole quarter for his allowance that day. I had received only a dime. With a three-year-old’s sense of injustice, I tore, shrieking, into my parent’s blue bedroom where my dad lay, napping.
“Daddy! Daddy!” I cried, pulling at his sleeve to drag him to consciousness. “Steve got more allowance than me. That’s not fair!”
Instead of rising from bed, digging in a pocket for my additional fifteen cents and smirking as if to say, “Crap, I’m busted,” as I thought he would, my dad roared awake, bellowing with the agony of a wounded bison.
“Judyyyyyy!” he cried for my mom. “Randi is in here waking me up. From! My! Nap!
Godddammmit, Judy! I’m sick! As. A. Dog!” he ranted, his voice rising to a whine that scared the three-year-old shit out of me. He stood and continued to bellow like that wounded animal, his arms flapping, a semaphore of his enormous frustration.
Where was my mother? he demanded to know. At first frozen in place by this frightening display, at this I broke free by shrieking again in response. I turned and fled from the bedroom. Hours later, when my mom arrived home, she found me still hiding under my ruffled canopy bed. I was scolded firmly for having bothered Dad when he wasn’t feeling well and denied ice cream for dessert that night. I had awoken a sleeping giant, and it was not happy.
There was real damage done that day. Granted, my dad hadn’t been feeling well, but I was an age-appropriately self-absorbed child who needed my dad. That day I saw a side of him that would haunt me for most of our relationship. From that point on I had a fear of my dad, a fear of his outsized, unpredictable reactions. When I really look at it, I see I spent my childhood altering my behaviors so as not to spark those behaviors from my dad. I was not myself around a person I should have been able to trust to care for me no matter what. I didn’t make a move to heal our relationship until the time of my first wedding in my mid-twenties, when I wrote him a long letter in advance of the event, asking him to control his temper around my friends over the once-in-a-lifetime weekend. At such a stressful and public gathering, I knew I would crack like an egg into a puddle of inconsolable goo if he threw a fit for any reason, at anyone. As I recall, he read that letter with tears in his eyes, seeing for the first time how his formidable expressions of anger affected those he loved. I think mine was a brave move, long overdue. In its aftermath, our relationship began to heal. Thank goodness, we had many years left to enjoy a lovely father-daughter relationship before he passed in 2014.
When Jonah approached me with his thoughtful remarks, I flashed back to being that tiny three-year-old girl, looking to my dad for reassurance that I was equal to my brother in his eyes, and getting scared out of my wits instead. It took me a second or two to process Jonah's comments, to hear what he was really saying.
“Hmm…” I started, using the sound to buy some time. Although his comments first tripped my ‘self-righteous, I’m working’ trigger, I saw I had a choice, here. I could react defensively, shouting back the opposite of Jonah’s experience, telling him he shouldn’t interrupt me when I was so clearly focused on my writing. But then, why had I chosen to sit at the family dining room table, essentially a public place, to write? Was it reasonable to expect that I be left alone, or considerate of me to dominate this public space and demand silence from everyone else? I saw I could choose a better response.
I rolled my options over in my head. Finally, I found the one that felt right.
“You know what, Jonah?” I began again, “You’re right. I could have been nicer. The next time I need solitude I will be more considerate about where I set up. You’re right, family should treat each other better than I just did. You were only wishing me ‘good morning,’” I finished sheepishly. “Thanks, honey. I can do better next time.”
To my great relief, Jonah was gracious enough to accept my response. He gave me a matching sheepish grin, then we each stepped toward the other and did a quick mom-and-son embrace. “Good morning, bunny,” I said. I think I gave him the same smirk my dad would have used.
My dad was a great guy, but he could be an insensitive boob sometimes. If the best thing I learned from him was to look carefully at a situation before reacting, then I think he did pretty well by me. Although, admittedly, it took us both a long time to learn it. On a more humorous note, the Sunday wake-up event I described was the first time I remember my dad using two of the catch-phrases my family has used ever since. Ask any of us- my mom, my brother, both my boys and at least one ex-husband, “Godddammmit, Judy” is an exclamation that has the power to break tension in almost any situation. It sends us into gales of laughter instead of fits of pique, cooling down hot feelings. The “sick-as-a-dog” descriptor also rates high in the annals of shared family language. When any of us is truly ill, we say it to mock our illness, invoking humor as the best medicine.
I’m so fortunate to have my family nearby, especially during such an uncertain time. I really needed Jonah to remind me of it the other day. Thanks, babe, for giving me an opportunity to behave decently in a challenging situation. You are a superstar.
I would be grateful if you share this story to anyone you think might enjoy it. We can all use a reminder that we can do better.