I am a firm believer that as long as no one winds up permanently maimed, killed or orphaned, unfortunate circumstances are often a huge gift in disguise, one that keeps on giving long after the worst is over and every last victim is made whole again. And nowhere is that more true than in the world of parenting.
The folklore that is passed from generation to generation regarding the vast array of travails, big and small, poignant and nonsensical, heartbreaking and humiliating is an all important thread that helps weave us closer to our family. From ruined vacations to birthday parties gone bad to hapless trips to the emergency room, these stories are more than entertainment; they are allegories, with morals to be shared and hopes that the listener might learn from past mistakes.
“And THAT, my son is why you never wipe your butt with a REDDISH green leaf when you are camping.”
There is one type of fable that seems to be particularly effective and resonant with my sons. These are the stories rooted in the theme “The Time Mom got in Big Trouble.” It may be because I spin a particularly good yarn, but I suspect the stickiness of the lessons are hinged on the sheer delight at the thought that their mother (a.k.a. their guiding compass of morality) could ever have been any kind of awful and that their grandmother (who adores just about everything they do even when its borderline psychotic) could ever have called bullshit and brought the full force of authority down on my sweet little head. Regardless, these are stories that the brothers don’t seem to mind hearing more than once when the timing is right and a gentle warning is worth heeding.
One of our most famous and favorite stories is based on a large can of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail. Back in the day, this delectable treat made an appearance at our dinner table once a week or so. Mom was always careful to divide it evenly among my older sister, younger brother and me – each one of us getting equal amounts and the requisite half maraschino cherry in our bowls. I don’t remember what evil demon overtook me the night of the story in question, but for some reason, I thought that sharing the can was entirely beneath my middle child stature. I wanted the whole thing – and was prepared to go to the mat to keep all that syrupy goodness from my siblings.
My mother could have easily told me “no.” That happened a lot. But instead she counseled me that the can was very large – with plenty to go around – and I was being selfish. I held my ground as she continued to play along. Mom told me that, yes, I could have the entire can to myself that night but I would have to eat it all in one sitting. I had won! My sister and brother looked on miserably as I accepted the challenge and dug in – eating all those half maraschino cherries first, then moving to the juicy peaches, and slowly turning my sights on the pears.
Surely when my Mom said I had to eat the whole can, she didn’t mean the pears! But yes indeed she did. And I sat at the dinner table for the rest of night alone while my siblings pranced around me and the largest bowl of canned pear cubes ever, now mixed with my crocodile tears and a healthy side of good riddance.
The Del Monte Fruit Cocktail story has become my legacy.
It has been told to my boys many times over the years when “sharing” seems like a bad idea. It has stood the test of time alongside of the “Don’t Feed the Dog from the Table” story which stars my older sister who found herself eating spaghetti off the floor one night after failing to abide by this important family rule. My childhood is a jukebox of these tales – and I credit my parents for having the creativity to invoke such original punishments and mettle to see them through, which brings me to my current cause for concern.
I do not punish my children enough.
Forget about being creative – we don’t even do the boring stuff well. As I thought about the stories that they will someday tell their children about how grandmom really gave it to them for this or that, I have come up completely empty. Our parenting style is so much different than our parents, and does not lend itself to any type of grand retelling. Tales of war and battle are far more compelling that sagas of negotiation. My boys have yet to be grounded for a year, have never been forced to eat pet food, and we have never locked them in the dog crate or duct taped them to any piece of furniture. At best, I have on occasion unleashed a string of profanity at them until their little ears started to turn red and I knew my work is done.
But what kind of story does that make?
Time is running out for Dave and I to get our game on and instill some awesome punishments worthy of Noah and Chase recounting them someday to our hypothetical grandchildren in a lesson to school them on right and wrong. How else are they going to learn?
Let this be fair warning to you boys: Before you even think of going down a treacherous path with us in the next few months, just remember the four little words that are loitering in my mind, waiting for you:
Once. Upon. A. Time.