MIDDLE OF IT ALL
by Barbara Hall
I chewed my greenbeans thoughtfully, planning my strategy carefully. Everything had to be in place. My nine-year-old eyes scanned the dinner table. THERE was my cue. Stab, stab, stab, stab. Exactly four greenbeans impaled on her fork. I hated when she did that. My sights had zeroed in on my 14 year old sister. The greenbeans were making their journey up to her mouth. All my senses heightened. I tuned in to the table conversation for something to barnacle upon. Got it, Mom's talking about a neighbor visiting. Closer move the greenbeans, the timing has to be perfect. The conversation swings this way like a jungle vine.
"Yeah, and then the cat strolls in and throws up on her foot and leaves....." I land lithely on the jungle branch and turn to watch. Direct hit. My sister brings a fist up to her mouth as she gives herself half a push away from the table and the gagging and sputtering begins - to the background music of my mother hollering
"BARBARAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! QUIT THAT!" but Mom's laughing.
My sister never REALLY chokes, but the laughing does make her mascara run and in among the odd noises she makes are the ever present threats that she's gonna KILL me......Whereupon my father finally looks up from the newspaper he's reading at the table in all the commotion and gives us his proverbially puzzled:
"Wha........?" which brings on more fits of laughter.
It's my job. I'm that Middle Child. As a Middle Child in a classically dysfunctional family it has always been my job to rescue my elder sister from her own perfection and my younger brother from becoming a full-fledged deity. My brother was far harder to catch as the idiocy of youth often joined with an all too high IQ to make him a truly formidable foe. But that same year, I nailed him too. Little Mr. Smug - my parents treated him as though he could walk on water and he believed them. I knew his weak spot though - my ballet teacher's sister.
We both got dragged to ballet lessons because OUR aforementioned sister was having some growing pain problems and was managing to trip over colors in the carpet, so Mom decided that perhaps ballet lessons would make her more graceful. She started lessons when she was nine which meant that I was brought along to watch, every single week, from the time I was four. I was pawing the linoleum in the church basement howling to be able to get in there and dance too, but no, I had to wait 'til I was five.
In September of my fifth year I went tearing out onto the dance floor in my pink tights, my little black leotard and my clean white ballet slippers, knowing EXACTLY what to expect, what music would be played first and that I should pull my stomach IN. For that first recital I was a candy cane. My brother was only two then, but I was watching him.
For a total of seven years I flew out onto the dance floor every September and soared across the stage every June dressed in wonderful costumes of satin and netting and sequins. The smell of satin and sequins resides in my memory still, and when added to the smell of hairspray and the uncomfortable feel of lipstick, they became the vivid memories of Recital Night.
For all those years my brother sat at class, mesmerized by the teacher's exquisitely beautiful sister who played the piano with passion and power belying her diminutive stature of barely five feet tall. She was in her twenties, he was six. He studied her hands as they flew across the keys. Sometimes he would venture to ask a six year old question to which I'm sure he never heard the answer, he was so taken by her talking to him at all. I could see the budding Family Deity turning to mush.
So I stored this information away for a day when he was being particularly, infuriatingly annoying and I let my arrow fly.
"Oh YEAH, well, you're in love with S A L L Y.............."
A rock was returned every bit as quickly as my arrow had flown and beaned me in the very center of my forehead. I screamed unholy bloody murder and immediately saw blood on my hand. NOW I had ammunition. I went HOWLING into the house shrieking that my head was split open. Sweeter than the feel of the eventual cold wet washcloth across my poor old head as I lay upstairs in bed was the sound of the screaming and spanking going on downstairs. But deities have a way of messing with the universe and ultimately my injury kept me from going to that very ballet teacher's house with the 'big girls' that very evening. I've been plotting my revenge ever since........
Now the parents were a whole 'nother story. On days when we weren't plotting each other's demise, my brother and I would make the most of my father's most amusing qualities. Daddy wasn't HARD of hearing, he had SELECTIVE hearing. You could say just about anything and check a stop watch for the exact time it would take him to look up and say "Wha...?" We got to where we could say "Wha...?" at precisely the same second as he did and dissolve into hysterics. Of course our favorite amusement was to sneak up on him as he napped, Dagwood-like on the TV room couch with the New York Daily News open on his chest. He'd snooze out while reading and be sound asleep holding the paper upright. If a child's voice were to sweetly call his name, he'd answer with his "Wha...?" and immediately turn the page! Sometimes my brother and I could get three page-turnings out of him in an afternoon.
One of his stranger performances was quite rare, only happening when he was really sick. He would be lying in bed puzzling about feeling so rotten by emitting endless themes and variations on "Oh, boy!" My brother and I would be in convulsions on the living room couch listening to "OOOOOOOOH boy! HOHboy! (pause) OH, boooooooy!!" When he had the flu that one year the "OH boy's" went on for hours.
But once again Middle Child was called upon to take the steering wheel of this odd family. Going into the kitchen for some kind of refreshments during an "OH BOY" intermission, I came upon my mother clinging to the sink all teary-eyed. I stared at her and tried to digest that this Mom of knowing-what-to-do-with-every-sick-broken-animal-we-ever-had, this Mom who made pasta from scratch just to show up the Italian aunts, this Mom who knocked out ballet costumes like she was making pot holders, was standing here at the sink losing it because my father had a fever.
My stare asked the question she answered:
"I've never SEEN him so sick, with such a high fever!" Tears came to her eyes and her hands began to shake. Middle Child knows what she must do. I took command. I raised my voice (and I never EVER raised my voice to my mother unless we were engaged in an equal shrieking match).
"Hey!" I said with no nonsense in my voice,
"You go back up there and tell him you're gonna feed him angleworms on TOAST, but DON'T YOU LET HIM SEE YOU LIKE THIS!"
I guess my words shocked her as much as they shocked me, 'cause she did somehow manage to get back up there and resume 'Mom mode'.
It hasn't always been easy to process this particular (and peculiar) nest into which I had been dropped, but my duty was clear. SOMEone had to take the helm and keep this family from either self-destructing or losing its sense of humor. So I outran Mom, puzzled the daylights out of Daddy, and I keep an eagle eye still on those two pieces of Wonderbread between which I have been sandwiched.