A couple of weeks ago, my brother Dan came up for Mum’s 75th birthday celebration with his five kids (Paul, 18, Em, 15, Lauren 14, Jon, 12 and Briana, 6), all of whom reminded me of what is was like growing up in a house full of like-minded, clumsy individuals. Our free-flowing sarcasm and penchant for showing each other affection with insults seems harsh, but between the barbs you’d hear us sharing kindnesses like, please and thank you and excuse me and let me get you a bandaid. Dan always wanted a home like the one we had grown up in – loud, lots of laughing, pets, stereo cranked, TV blaring sports, plenty of food, and half the neighborhood just hanging out under one roof – and that’s exactly what he got. Amid the piles of wet towels, bags spilling over with books and clothes, shouts of HEED! PANTS! NOW! and multiple floors of general mayhem, for four days I reveled in the nostalgia of my childhood chaos. I was back home.
Most weekend nights between 1988 and 1991 would find me in my house with several friends getting ready to go out, then after a few hours of teenaged debauchery Quebec-style (hint:involves gravy and not turning right on a red), we’d stagger in around 2am and sleep where we fell. We’d wake up to the smell of bacon and eggs being prepared by Mum in the kitchen. Unlike my friends who would often banish their parents from their own house, we actually wanted Mum around. She’d hang back while we relived the previous night’s exploits and she’d laugh, listen without judgement, and always offer advice when it was sought. By the time I was a teenager, Mum had raised two sons to adulthood and knew there was no point in trying to fight about curfews. Some of my friend’s parents disapproved of how much freedom I was given, but because Mum was significantly older than most of them, she knew the folly in trying to circumvent a teen’s natural proclivity for lying and sneaking around. She didn’t see it as handing me the keys to the kingdom, rather she saw it as a sign of respect, not just for me but for herself.
Mum was confident in how she had raised me and I knew I didn’t have to hide anything from her. She wasn’t desperately trying to be my friend either, a mistake too many parents make. As a result I was never tempted to disappoint her. She was, according to all my friends, ‘cool’. I always joke that if I was popular at all it was only because people were hanging out with me to get to her. When any of our friends had had it with their parents and ‘left home’, they always came to my house. Mum would drop whatever she was doing and give her undivided attention, and ultimately within an hour their parents would be at the door ready to reconcile. She came to my prom. She taught us how to swing dance. She’s been invited to countless showers and weddings of friends that my brothers and I don’t even hear from anymore. Growing up, all my friends had more money than me, bigger homes, nicer clothes and newer cars, but I had the best Mum.
My family was the first clique I was ever part of. They were the only people I wanted to impress. It didn’t matter what happened at school or choir or basketball practice, I would always be popular at home. My family, and our friends and neighbors were the people I looked up to, they were the ones I spent most of my free time with. Our house was never empty, the door was never locked, and there was always enough of everything to go around – such was the mandate of the woman who made our crooked, cluttered, unassuming home the coolest place in town. This was as important to my development as a balanced diet and a solid education. Social interaction and acceptance outside of my peer group gave me confidence and self-esteem and helped me shape my tastes in movies, music, and fashion and allowed me to form opinions about politics, religion and other topics most people don’t consider until they are much older. I was allowed to argue, to disagree, to question without fear, to express myself without worrying that I might look stupid. Sometimes I was envious of my friends who had nicer furniture or a bigger TV, but it was only when I moved away from home at 19 that I realized how privileged my upbringing had been. Trends, clothes, cars and houses don’t last forever, but the gift of a worthy example is one that never devalues.
Dan’s kids told me when they hear the song ‘Our House’ by Madness, they imagine what it must have been like for us to grow up in that creaky duplex on Prospect Street. The fact that a bunch of kids under 20 are actually familiar with an obscure British 80’s ska revival band is a testament to the kind of pop culture arcana Dan is exposing to his offspring (12 year old Jon has memorized all of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, a Golding rite of passage akin to receiving first communion). Seeing how my brother spoils his kids with love and attention rather than with stuff reminded me how many of my friends growing up confided that they longed for a parent they weren’t afraid to talk to, for a parent that actually knew them, for a parent that spent time with them rather than money on them. Don’t get me wrong, we had the same things our friends had, but not the top of the line, expensive, designer stuff. We had the generic, it’ll do for now stuff. When I hear people say they want to give their kids the things they never had, I always want to ask them if they turned out badly because their parents didn’t have a Beemer with a red bow waiting for them in the driveway on their Sweet Sixteen.
If you work in an environment with more than four employees you know cliques persist, you see how high school rules still apply in most social settings. Being able to rise above the fray, to see the folly in caring too much about what others think of you and to instead choose to care about the things you know to be important and above all, to like yourself first is something that can’t be taught, it can only be shown. My brother’s kids are all very chilled out individuals. They’re the kids I would have wanted to be friends with when I was their ages. Last October I visited them, and on the Saturday before Halloween we all decided to get dressed up in costumes and go bowling. We cobbled together outfits: Nerd, Witch, Sandy from Grease, Wizard, Blind Referee, Tom Petty*. The most obscure was Dan as a member of Devo. We were the only ones at the alley that dressed up and we had an amazing time. The kids had never been to Rock and Bowl and the DJ had never had a five-year-old request We’re Through Being Cool, so it was an evening of firsts all around. At an age when most kids are embarrassed if their parents do something innocuous like pick them up from school, Lauren, then 13, watched her dad’s gawky pogo dance - his Devo energy dome hat making him nearly seven feet tall – with a broad smile bordering on reverence. I said, “You know your dad is crazy, right?” Without taking her eyes off him she said, “I know! I love it!”
* My 12-year-old nephew Jon looks remarkably like Tom Petty. If you ever see him please remind him that he don’t have to live like a refugee.