When I heard it said that the family is a microcosm of the world, it explained everything. Still Dad added a another dimension to the quote when he said, "You're lucky if you're even friends with your family when you grow up."
Now that was cold.
I was a teenager then, but now I see a simple truth in that theory. Family is not a given. Sometimes individual personality differences and personal crosses irritate each other until the friction is so adverse nobody can be around it without catching fire.
It probably took me longer to accept Dad's theory, because throughout my childhood, my friend's family gave the impression that perfect love was doable.
Sandy’s was a more modern, cohesive family. They had solidarity, kindness, friendship and a kitchen painted in stimulating colors: brown, orange and green. Sure they had the typical pecking order problems now and then, but each member of the family showed up to the dinner table as their joyful selves, no bickering.
There was always one of the two parents at the proverbial wheel demonstrating authority, so there was no imbalance of power, no fear of a coup. (There were wars and rumors of wars when my parents announced they were going to a wedding.)
The first time I ate dinner at Sandy’s house after school, the siblings were seated at an average size kitchen table, something our family of nine kids never did. Sandy’s mother, "Freckles," a raven-haired, beautiful woman (who wore makeup and smoked long cigarettes) asked me if I wanted ice.
I never had ice in my glass at supper, and my glass was never filled with nostril-burning soda. "Sure!"
I was stunned when she plopped it into my pastina. Two things occurred to me: One, food temperature mattered; two, if I didn't eat fast, there'd be a puddle of tasteless, cool water in my pastina.
At eleven years old, my comparison study was underway.
As we married and raised our own families, I was intrigued when Sandy’s sweet-faced daughter, Christine, lie on the floor of a lovely party room in her First Holy Communion dress and cried.
In our family, at best, that would have triggered laughter, pointing and taunting: "I can see up your drey-yess." But on either side of Christine knelt her mother, Sandy, and grandmother, Freckles. I stood nearby, spaced out, jaw dropped. Sandy’s sister, Colette, waved her hand across my face.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"I'm just amazed."
"Amazed by what?"
Christine's tears had elicited the concern of two generations of women. What was that like?
"Each crisis is just as important as the last," I said.
Flash forward ten years...
Sandy’s sister, Colette, organized an outing to a stadium-style Christian women's conference, held in Philadelphia.
My mother-in-law and two of my husband's aunts came, and we all drove in one car from New York. I stood outside the hotel, waiting for my Model Family to arrive when a van pulled up, the doors burst open and the van rocked with shouting and frenzy.
Driving beyond a ten mile radius of her home pre GPS (with a van load of talkative women and a baby) was beyond Sandy’s limit.
"Get the hell out! I have to park," she said.
Exiting the van, Colette released a nervous giggle. "I'm going as fast as I can. You need to lighten up," she said.
Sandy’s sister, Joanne, smirked, rolling her luggage towards the hotel door.
"That was the ride from hell," she said. "I need a drink." There were near collisions all the way to the hotel. They got lost. The baby was hungry, but Colette would not remove him from the car seat because the van was in motion. So she sort of stood, bent to nurse. Sandy lost it.
"Get your big ass out of the way. I can't see!"
But never mind all that. Colette had planned a perfect two day revival. The conference was going to heal everybody's tension. There'd be gratitude instead of attitude.
When Sandy and I checked into our room, we discovered that because they had to shuffle people around, we were blessed with an incredible suite. Instant gratification.
We were late to our first session, but located our seats in the nosebleed section. Like anybody who wasn't on the ground floor, we'd watch all of the talks on a Jumbotron and our brains would rattle from the incredible sound system.
I never thought we needed a mental health assessment to scale the steps to the top row of seating, but the height triggered dizziness and fear of falling in the dark.
"I can't do this!" Diana said.
What can't you do, the climb, the conference, the Jumbotron, the sure to be overcrowded concession stand at break time, the women-filled arena? I get it. I get it all! Let's blow this hefty clam bake!
Oh gawd, forgive me for my lack of endurance. No lightening!
I kept my feelings to myself.
"Do what?" I asked.
"I feel dizzy. This is higher than I thought. Here, take the baby. I'm terrified I am going to fall."
Standing on the step beneath her, I hadn't thought about falling, but now it was plausible. The upside was I now had a mission. I performed better when there was a rescue in order. Now I needed to get the baby to solid ground. So like walking a tight rope, I tried not to think about each step or that I could not grasp a railing because I was holding the baby, praying we wouldn't get toppled from behind.
We spotted Colette, who was insisting that a security guard allow her to bring a sister into the children's room with her. He clearly did not understand the family dynamic.
By morning, two things happened: face swelled, eyeballs bulged and I was nauseous from the lovely allergen-infested suite. After breakfast, my in-laws invited me to abandon ship and return with them to Long Island. I decided to stay, because our entire endeavor was based on faith. I at least had to believe that it couldn't get any worse.
I cannot say. The remainder of the experience remains a blur.
Colette and I both learned a lot that weekend about expectation and scriptwriting. Then there was the ride home with my Model Family...
Next up: Four Decades of Observation: Thoughts from the Fire Escape