Reality Truck: Mom Knows Best
"My husband and I are going to get another dog or have a child. We can't decide whether to ruin our carpet or just our lives." -- Rita RudnerI don't know about you, but I've already started shopping for Mother's Day (to be closely followed by my mother's birthday)-content in the unerring knowledge that whatever I do, it will be wrong. Because at this stage in their lives, the one thing my Mom and my stepdad want is ... a grandchild. My standard two-word response? Too. Bad. I've pointed out to them that they already have two stepgrandchildren once removed. I figured that oughtta hold 'em off for at least a few more years. My oldest stepbrother married a woman who has two perfectly adorable (if you go for that sort of thing) kids. But as my parents have pragmatically pointed out (accompanied by much eye-rolling and heavy sighs), this is already his second marriage (the first one casually discarded after about 15 years), so there's really "no point in getting attached." (They are at least tactful enough that they avoid making these kinds of observations in front of the kids.) So last year, as my Mom's grandmotherly biological clock whirred into high gear, I decided that maybe a little quality time together would be the perfect way to placate her on the weekend of Mother's Day. Secretly, I guess I was thinking maybe it would remind her that, since she doesn't even especially enjoy my company -- if I had kids, it's highly unlikely that they'd be much more tolerable. Don't get me wrong, it's not that my parents don't like me (...necessarily). I know they love me (would lay down their life for me in fact), it's just that they respectfully disapprove of nearly every decision I've made in the past ten years. Oh, I managed to get into the right college, finish up graduate school and (contrary to everything you've been told about liberal arts grads) land a job. But that was back in the days when I was still ... promising. "Promising," much like "cute" has an expiration date of about 30 (in the most generous terms), and I passed up both a while back and am comin' up hard on "disappointment," to be followed eventually, by "failure." To be fair, I wasn't raised to have a maternal instinct -- no subtle indoctrination with dolls; no playing "house" or "family." I always made up games where I got to be "chairman of the board" -- while my brother and my little playmates got stuck being the poor little union members ... whom I squashed like bugs. (My father-a real labor kind of guy-was horrified, having never crossed a picket line in his life.) As a chronic overachiever, I think the least my parents expected was that I would grow up to a nice cushy corporate job where I would quickly become so obscenely wealthy that they could retire to the Desert Southwest in stylish peace, where they could stop worrying about us kids. Having given up on that little dream, I think they'd settle for the consolation prize of grandchildren. If I'm not going to have a respectable career, the least they want out of the deal is some pictures for their wallets and fridge? Maybe a set of Plaster of Paris handprints for the den? Some brass baby booties? Is that too much to ask, goddammit?!! And you can forget about my brother. (It's easy enough-he rarely has a phone, and only occasionally an address-though we know he's somewhere in Austin.) He's not going to willingly reproduce anytime soon. He could give a rat's ass what anyone (including my parents) thinks of him, his lifestyle, his career, or how much money he does or doesn't have. His first car was repo'd when he was about 18. He followed that up by almost dying in a highly dramatic motorcycle crash. And only the fact that I'd still like a seat at the family Thanksgiving dinner table keeps me from revealing the details of his subsequent encounter with the criminal justice system and his unfortunate, merit-less (but mercifully brief) incarceration. He's also one of the happiest, most well-adjusted people I know. He tells me (collect, of course), "Sis, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, it'd be ok. I've lived more at 30 than most people have by 60." He really means that, God love 'im. I'm like, "Hellooo! Have we met?" Is there any possibility we were raised in the same house? So he's now thousands of miles away, leaving me to bear the brunt of the family's dashed hopes and dreams: Why did I break up with my fiancee (such a NICE boy)? Why are all my friends so "artsy"? Don't I know anyone who's "normal?" And in response to any comments indicating that I might be experiencing conflict or stress over my career choices, nearly every member of my family can be counted on to offer solace, in the form of some variation on the theme of "Suck it up, Missy -- it's supposed to be work. It's a job; you're not there to have fun!" It's what I get for not going to Law School in the first place. I go to the most expensive college in the state only to end up a writer. Or to quote any one of my aunts when they think I'm out of earshot-and here it helps if you imagine the voices of Marge Simpson's sisters: "A fortune?!!!! Pissed away." (They also still spell things out when I'm in the room; as if-two English degrees later-I still can't decipher their code.)So despite these acknowledged flaws, I decided last year that a weekend of togetherness would be the only present I could give my mom that she wouldn't return. I'm a big fan of "saying it with flowers," but my mother's a little too pragmatic for them. I learned my lesson the last time I sent her yellow roses (her favorite). She tactfully pointed out that they were dead within a week, and couldn't that money have been put to better use in my IRA? She doesn't mean to be ungracious, but the bottom line is, she comes from a long line of women who simply aren't comfortable with other people (God forbid) spending money on them. (I ought to point out that this trait has apparently been known to skip a generation.) This quality time idea wasn't a foolproof plan either, of course -- I got a lecture about how dangerous the interstates were with all the construction, and how she hated to have me on the road, and that I shouldn't stop at rest areas where all the murderer/rapists are lurking, and so on. (Bear in mind, this is maybe an hour's drive on a good day.) But I told her, we'd spend Saturday however she wanted. Which meant we began the afternoon at St. John's -- crafts day. I instantly realized (too late) that I had inadvertently stumbled onto an entire nest of Episcopalian Martha Stewarts. There was a large group of women assembled in the church's reception hall-decoupaging their heads off. Clearly, I was out of my element. After their cool dismissal of my token offer to help, the next thing out of their mouths was a series of questions about kids? Did I have any? Why not? Was I married? Why not? (I think they then checked my feet for "comfortable shoes," if you get what I'm sayin'.) After carefully weighing all my options, I admitted that I'd been considering getting a puppy. And inasmuch as a group of sweet, blue-haired ladies can be said to exude scorn and derision -- I was the object of theirs.It was just a month or two after that that I presented my parents with their first ... grandpuppy -- an admittedly poor substitute as far as they're concerned. But I use him as an example of what an unmitigated disaster I'd be as a parent, and by extrapolation, what they'd be like as grandparents. (He also shores up my theory that what they really like is the IDEA of grandchildren-i.e., a wallet full of photos to show their friends-as opposed to the actual worry, dirt, and stickiness that accompanies real life kids.) To begin with, though, I must say they were very good sports. They brought Travis presents. They asked about him every time they called. My stepdad made him a dog house and put his name on it in big gold letters. There are pictures of him on their fridge. I have to admit, they did their duty. Then the charm wore off-and I have no reason to suspect that grandchildren would really be any different. For example, all the comments they used to reserve for my inadequacies, are now transferred to the dog. Or as my stepdad usually puts it, tactfully, within seconds of walking in the door, "He's WAY too fat. What are you feeding him? Why aren't you walking him enough?" and "Is that dog shit on my shoes?" Which brings up the issue of cleanliness, which has always been a source of some contention in my family. Here again, my brother has always existed in this area for the sole purpose of making me look good. Until I got a dog. Now all bets are off. The woman whose house I recall growing up in was something of a ... disciplinarian. At the very least, she ran a tight ship. Now I'm not talking Mommie Dearest. I certainly don't bear any coat hanger scars and I never caught her vacuuming in pearls, but it's safe to say cleanliness was next to godliness in our house. It would be equally safe to say I am a great disappointment to my mother in this area. (And I should also point out, in fairness, that my mother's response to every word I have ever written about her is, "I. Am. Not. Like. That.")Which is probably why they hit the roof when I started talking about a second dog. This proposed new addition is the nail in the grandchild coffin, and they're taking it pretty badly. Actually, I don't think they have to worry, because I doubt I'm going to be "approved" for the adoption process anyway. It's a sad day when you come to the realization that your life isn't fit for a dog. Given my increasing poverty (related to my steadily escalating second mortgage) which pretty much necessitates that I work anywhere from 60 hours per week and up, and will soon be reduced to what I think was characterized in the Old South as "taking in other people's wash," I'd decided that Travis really needed his own dog for the companionship that I'm not around to give him. So I signed up for a rescue program -- whereby you take dogs that are horribly abused and maladjusted and shower them with enough love and devotion to overcome all the evil that's been done to them. Just the job for me. In the process, what I discovered is that, not only am I not qualified to adopt a second dog, I should probably get rid of the one I already have. As I complete the questionnaire, I am coming to some very uncomfortable conclusions about my life. In reading over the "credentials" I'm going to need for this dog, I realize I haven't felt this bad about myself since my class reunion -- where nearly everyone else had cured a major disease in the last year. If I thought my parents were bad, this Rescue Society (they're a Society, mind you) want to know how much money I make; what kind of car I drive (and is it large enough to accommodate the dog in the style to which he would like to become accustomed); the square footage of my house; the square footage of my yard and the style of fencing; am I married?; how many hours a week will the "primary caregiver" work outside the home-is flextime a possibility?; do I have children and how old are they? Are they well trained? And so on ... They also wanted to know when they could arrange an "in-home visit," and specified that "the dog will not be released to a backyard environment." This led my friend Susan and I to speculate that they have little doggie social workers who come around, and if they find the dog outside -- they unceremoniously remove him from the premises in a van as the neighbors look on disapprovingly. I don't think my friends Tad and Jamie filled out this much paperwork or were subjected to this much scrutiny when they recently adopted their Russian orphan, Will (though they swear they're constantly having his room swept for possible Soviet spy devices). The incomplete "Society" questionnaire now mocks me from my in-basket (along with a hundred other things I haven't accomplished in the last week). It's probably the best present I could give my Mom for Mother's Day.