Paterfamilias and the General—Volume #1
There are two people in my life, who after all these years, never cease to surprise, confound, or shock me. My mother and father have been married for forty-three years. They raised my three sisters and I, cared for their ailing parents, worked full-time jobs, ran our family farm, and donate their time to community organizations. While the fact that they manage to still do many of these things impresses me, the thing that I find most fascinating is their relationship. It is a unique friendship and love full of banter, aggravation, wit, and understanding that I could not possibly summarize. So, without further adieu, for those of you who’ve asked, I give you some tales of my father, Paterfamilias, and mother, the General.
My mother asked me to stop by their farm after I got off of my shift at 6 a.m. She knew I would not be able to join in Easter brunch, as I work midnight shifts and must sleep during the day, so we decided on morning coffee-just the two of us. When I arrived, I found all of the lights in their house off. The General is usually a very early riser, so even though it was 6:30 a.m., I was surprised to discover that she and the Paterfamilias were both still sleeping.
They have scolded me before for not waking them up if they happened to be sleeping when I stop to visit, so I crept into their room, feeling like an intruder. It was pitch black and I could not remember which side of the bed either of them slept on. I called in a whisper from the doorway, “Mom? Mom…” several times, to no avail.
Paterfamilias’ snore broke and then dropped back into its deep nasally rumble. Okay, I’d at least located which side of the bed he was on. I crept around to the General’s, whispered again. Nothing. Her light stream of whistling breath, like a tea kettle, continued, so I resorted to nudging her gently with my hand. Still nothing. The tired farm wife was out like a light! My guilt got the best of me, even though I had sorely wished for the precious time to visit one-on-one with dear Mom. I decided if she was that tired, I’d let her sleep, write a note, and let her yell at me later that I didn’t wake them up.
I tiptoed back into the kitchen, and just as I found paper and pen and began to scribble my note, in marches the General. “Good morning! Alright, let’s get to it!”
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you wouldn’t even know she had two artificial hips or had been in a near coma two minutes prior. What in the hell? How does she do that, I wondered. She turned on the stove and began to clank around pots and dishes, and pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator.
“Go get a few dozen eggs off of the porch,” she called without making eye contact. That’s how the General commands her troops—she doesn’t ask questions or waste time with polite formalities, she cuts right to the orders. Okay, I guess I’m getting eggs.
Okay, I’ve got the eggs. The General doesn’t acknowledge my existence unless I end up in her path of breakfast-making destruction. It’s okay though, I’m versed at the cha cha, after years of knowing not to get underfoot and trampled.
“Mom? What do you want me to do?”
“Well, put those in a bowl.”
“All of them?” I have two dozen eggs.
“Well, yeah! They’re no good to me if they’re not cracked.” Of course, because everyone uses two dozen eggs at once. I begin my task without any idea of what in the hell we are making. I could ask, but it would just garner another response that will imply I’m asking a fool question. The General must like to keep her secrets. It’s all part of the mystery of any visit with her.
Twenty minutes into this, as I try to make idle chit chat, to this woman on a mission, I realize there is no coffee. I realize there is no motherly-daughter Easter morning chatter. There are orders and work to do. I’ve been duped! I’m there as a servant, which is fine. I still get to see the General, regardless if she forgot.
“Are you coming back later for dinner?”
“No, Mom. I have to work tonight, remember? I need to go home and sleep.”
“Oh,” she says sourly and frowns, chopping up vegetables. We’re making baked omelets. I’ve figured that much out. My sisters, those lucky punks, are going to get to eat the results of this labor—at least there’s that!
I hear the floor creak in the hallway and the voice of Paterfamilias, “General? Where are my clean underwear?”
Oh, shit, I think. I don’t want to see Dad in his underwear. I turn my back to focus on cutting vegetables and hear Paterfamilias’ footsteps as he enters the room.
“I don’t know. Did you look by the washer?”
“Ha! Got ya!” Paterfamilias chirps.
I turn around to find him dressed in his Sunday best—dress slacks and dress shirt, and his hair is even combed. His wide mischievous grin, the one he saves for his best pranks and jokes, is on his face. I smirk at him, knowing his question was meant for no one at all. “Bet I scared you, didn’t I?” he asks.
“Well, I didn’t think you’d be naked, but I turned around anyways so I wouldn’t have to see you in your underwear,” I laugh.
It’s Easter—a holiday. I quickly notice that Paterfamilias’ smile doesn’t fade. He looks more chipper and energetic than most mornings. I am reminded of how much he absolutely adores holidays and always has. I realize he goes almost over-the-top and I look at this balding, graying man and can’t help, but think how cute he is, like a little kid on Christmas morning.
“Did you see your Easter basket?” he asks and comes over to the counter.
“I’m thirty-four years old, Dad, and I can’t believe I still get an Easter basket. You guys still spoil us,” smile and abandon my unclear duties with the General. I’m out of her way now, which she probably doesn’t mind. Sometimes I think she appreciates that someone is there to entertain my father and help keep him out of her way. I begin to inspect my Easter basket, lined up next to three others—one each for my other adult sisters.
“Wow, the Peeps look huge. Have they always been that big?”
“Wait. Did you see what flavor they are?” he asks excitedly.
“Mmm, I don’t know. There’s different flavors?”
“Sure, I guess. This one’s a mystery flavor. You’ll have to eat them, find out, and then tell me if they’re horrible,” he laughs. Sure enough, the package reads that it is a “mystery flavor.” Leave it to Dad to always find the unusual.
“Did you see my lamb?” he continues.
I know immediately what he is talking about. The General was just critiquing his lamb moments ago. When I was a child, my four great-aunts (the sisters of my father’s father) used to take our house by storm on the holidays with their traditional baked goods. Every Easter they would bake a cake in a mold that looked like a lamb, lying down. Paterfamilias and the General still have the hideous lamb mold.
The lamb was always fairly disgusting and no one would ever eat it. It would sit there with its black jelly-bean eyes, covered in coconut, like wool, and stare at us for a week as it grew stale. Yet, the aunts still made it each year. The General, at some point, decided a Rice Krispies version of the lamb mold would more likely get eaten. So now, there was a Rice Krispies lamb in the fridge, courtesy of the General and a cake, frosted, coconut-covered, traditional lamb from the Paterfamilias. Oh, great. The war begins!
I watch Paterfamilias’ eager eyes and know this means I must physically walk over and inspect his lamb. Apparently I must have missed something. You always miss something when Paterfamilias is involved. I go to the dining room table where the creepy lamb cake sits on a platter and lift the plastic wrap. Just behind its rear end, I notice there is a small pile of tiny chocolate chips. The lamb has had an accident. “That’s great, Dad.” No wonder, the General didn’t like it.
Paterfamilias begins to tell me a story as we sit at the table. The General comes over and does something she rarely ever does—sits down and stops working! I focus on Paterfamilias’ story, wondering where in the hell it is going. I never know if it is something serious, a long drawn-out question, a simple observance, or a prank. I pay attention, as always, like I am being taught quantum physics so I do not miss the punch line, if one exists.
He tells me how the General’s bathroom supplies have recently been “encroaching” on his half of the double-vanity counter in their bathroom. Great, please don’t pick a fight, I think. I don’t want to hear them start bickering on Easter. The General rummages through some mail and one would never know if she is actively listening or actively ignoring.
Paterfamilias explains that he placed a string on the center of the counter, between the two bathroom sinks. He moved all of the General’s bathroom supplies to her side of the counter, on one side of the string, and his were safely on the other side. On his side of the string/demarcation line, he lined up an array of plastic, toy soldiers he found in an old model kit in the basement. The soldiers, I am told, stood at the ready, weapons aimed at the General’s side of the bathroom counter. Oh brother.
I look to the General for her reaction to what occurred the other day when this battle ensued. She smiles and says, “Well, I saw it and thought…I think he’s trying to tell me something.”
Paterfamilias laughs. I roll my eyes, and the General cracks a smile and looks at him, shaking her head. You’d have to know them to see all the love in their eyes at a moment like this. I pat the General on the shoulder. “Never a dull moment, huh?”