Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Granny's Secret Shame

Posting about figuring out how to get Colleen to holiday dinners on time and Mama to stop using racial slurs got me to thinking about when I did and when I didn't solve problems. I've written about Colleen before, and mentioned how she used to break my things until the day I made her pay to repair one of them, which turned out to be the last time she broke something of mine. But there were times when I didn't do anything about the behavior except resent it.

One example is the prawns. Not long after the kids and I moved back to California from Fairbanks, we were visiting my parents and Colleen was there. Daddy ordered and picked up Chinese take-out.* As the food was being passed around, Colleen took all of the prawns. I said something about other people wanting some prawns and Colleen said, "I don't eat anything but prawns." I commented that she could still ask if anyone wanted one before she took them all, since of course with just Mama, Daddy, and her everyone knew ahead of time, but with Richard, Julie, and me added to the mix, one of us might want one. "Colleen doesn't eat anything but prawns," my parents stated, so I shut up. I didn't actually care if I had a prawn or not and my kids weren't acting like they did, so I let it go. However, as soon as Colleen had eaten all of the prawns, she loaded up her plate with everything else in the cartons -- twice. Wait. She got all the prawns because she didn't eat anything else, but she ate more of everything else than any two people. That didn't seem fair. Nor did it seem exactly sane to make that statement. So, I tried to point out that Colleen was now chowing down on everything else, and my parents simply ignored me.**

This scene was repeated an uncounted number of times over the next 20 years. And it was never any different. I never figured out what to do about it. Which is crazy, because now I know exactly what I could have done about it. I had several choices. Since my kids and I didn't really care that much about prawns, I could have let it go. Or, when Daddy went to call in the order, I could have handed him a $5 bill and asked him to get two orders of prawns so that someone else could have some.*** There were probably other things I could have done as well, including taking a picture of the plate full of everything else to whip out as evidence the next time she grabbed all the prawns.

So, why didn't I? Why did I wait until she was dead to think of the solution?

I'll tell you, and it doesn't make me look all that good. The reason that I could figure out how to deal with some things and not others was that I did what gave me the biggest payoff. Quite simply, holiday dinner mattered and racial slurs mattered and having my stuff savaged mattered. But I didn't really care about prawns. And yet, I got angry every time. And that's why I didn't solve it. Getting mad was the payoff. A much better payoff than a few measely prawns.

Because one of the themes that runs through my life with my folks and Colleen is that I am a saint and she was a shit and my parents were unfair. So, when she got all the prawns, and they let her get by with it, they were vindicating me. It was proof that I'm a saint, and she was a shit, and my parents were unfair.

As hard as it is to admit, in those moments, I would rather be right than happy. When I cared I solved it. When I didn't, I let it go on to feed my sense of the unfairness of life and my sainthood.

* Remember, at this point it had been 15 years since I left home and in that time I had only occasionally been in town to see exactly how things worked with Colleen and my parents. Always the same way, always the way they had worked since she was born, but the particulars of any given situation were still missing.
** You may recognize that ignoring when facts clashed with prior policy was a fairly common behavior in that house. It makes one feel crazy, let me tell you. You have no idea how I treasure people who observed this and can confirm for me that it wasn't some nutty imaginary scene I cooked up. I really did say things that they didn't want to hear and they really did simply cease to hear me.
*** Not that he would have taken the money, but he would have ordered more prawns.


lilalia said...

I really like this post, for you hit the head on the nail about people-pleaser, nice gal, happy-camper women out there. Hopefully, I am a reformed nice gal. No matter what any woman says about why she allows someone else to walk right over her personal boundaries, anger is stewing there somewhere, and backbone is frustratingly lacking.

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

It's hard to admit to ones self that holding on to anger might be more satisfying than letting it go...

And letting it go seems so much healthier, too...but it's not always easy to do. Perhaps it takes practice. At least Aunt Colleen gave you plenty of opportunities for that! HA!

MrsGrumpy said...

I found this post to be wonderfully written. I am dealing with putting up with someone (for lack of a better word) at this moment, and right now the only payback I do get is anger. This person has been beloved by me above all others for so long that it is difficult to think about shutting the door. I know this comment doesn't make so very much sense to you, but your entry today has helped me immensely.

Rain said...

I like this series of posts and how a person feels and what can be done about it. Good ideas. Sometimes we do have to 'swallow' it, but we should be sure there aren't other alternatives and why we are 'swallowing' it. The language one was, btw, my favorite of your solutions :)

Never That Easy said...

Again, I feel like you're saying something that's so important. I can only say that it's made me think.