Things fall apart, the
centre cannot hold… –W B Yeats
The holidays are family time. We sell liquor. –Sign at a corner
My two siblings and I loved to visit
our cousins, a family of nearly a dozen children. You’d pick your generic cousin
or cousins—the ones near your age—and play until well after dark, far
longer that your parents usually allowed you to stay up. The older half
would sometimes play tag with the younger ones. They were the admired
big kids who soon became far more interested in dating, leaving the
lower half to play with our family, plenty of kids for a really good
time. But the third one in that group, young though she was, loved power more
than play. We’d be playing in the yard, doing nothing wrong, and she’d
run in and tattle. She’d help her mother with chores and watch and watch
and watch to find something to tell on. She wasn’t successful when our
family was there, but when it was only the lower group, she’d often get
someone into real trouble and get an adrenaline hit every time.
Naturally, we didn’t like her. We had
a nasty little rhyme we’d chant at her, “Tattle tale… your mother’s…
every time you turn around you get...”
A widow with many children, her mother
felt the need to rely on this information and reinforced the tattle tale
(whom we’ll dub Thorn) to a character-damaging degree.
Once when our uncle and prim aunt took
all of us to a park, the aunt advised us that we should use the toilet
at their home because the park facilities were dirty. Well…there are
many, many curious children who would really want to see how dirty the
park toilets were. I was one of those. But Thorn was always watching the
other children in order to report on any delinquency. No time to play
herself, she ran to tell Uncle of my transgression. Due to her sadistic
streak, she was hoping to witness a painful punishment, but that was
beyond Uncle’s authority, so he devised a taunt that they both chanted
together at the errant miscreant: “We know where Judi went.
Does Judi feel better now?” Embarrassing? Yes. But the result was that I
had less respect for my uncle after that.
In adolescent, Thorn shaped up a
bit—other than things like “borrowing” without permission [stealing] a
sibling’s hard earned,
brand new suit, being the first one to wear it—to an event the sibling
As an adult, Thorn continued to crave
the tattle tale role. Trouble was, tattling didn’t work so well
when there was no one at the head of a bunch of married siblings. So
Thorn cleverly devised a new mechanism.
She wrote letters, letters to keep
everyone informed, letters about this one’s prostate surgery, that one’s
business failure, and other people’s announcements that weren’t hers to
Then the internet came along—a dream
come true! E-mails could be sent to anyone, with To:s and Cc:s and Bcc:s.
She could get unsuspecting in-laws to give her pictures of a
relative’s grandchildren and put the pictures on social media. Better
yet, she could post the pictures with the home address of the babies for
all the world and every child molester to see. Happy Thorn!
Then she convinced the second and
third generations she was the communications hub of the extended family,
and if they wanted to send invitations to their parties by e-mail, they
should have her send them out. That way, she had an outlet for her
sadistic impulses. She could select people to leave out of the guest
list and then make up extremely insulting reasons for excluding them.
She didn’t give her own parties, didn’t so much as invite anyone to her
home for glass of water, but was glad to attend and control the parties
of others. One favorite trick was to take awkward or embarrassing
pictures of someone and e-mail them out to everyone. Any time she was
called on her behavior, she would phone one of the siblings who enabled
her and cry and cry as though she were the victim. She’d write
to the victim, “Cheer up” as though it were their fault for taking
offense. At the calling hours and funerals of family, she'd sit watching
everyone and then e-mail them telling them what time they had left. Thorn Heaven!
My father always felt that it was
inheritance that tore families apart. I never thought it was money. It’s
situations of favoritism and bullying that existed long before the Will,
and it’s parents who have a stake in either pitting their offspring
against each other or fail to notice and moderate the conflicts. When
the parents go, abuse no longer has to be tolerated.
We all want to think that families are
important above all else. Important though they are, however, a lot
often goes wrong. Looking at family histories reveals that siblings
usually go their separate ways. America was populated by people who left
their homeland knowing that they would never see it again. They
crossed dangerous oceans in flimsy ships aware that death pursued them
every knot of the way. “Second sons” and daughters left their mothers
and their fatherland forever.
We’re desperate to hold on to the myth
of family, but going back in ancestry reveals a common pattern of
siblings who live fairly close never seeing each other. The son of a
sister never meets the daughter of a brother.
Common bias wants us to see offspring
in one or two child families having a hard time in life and to see those
from large families jolly and happily getting along with each other. The
real world doesn’t support that, much as we’d like it to.