Family lore contains multiple stories which are almost always embarrassing to the person in the story, but which give everyone else much amusement.
I grew up laughing at the stories, being amused by children’s antics and crazy utterances. But eventually, as my worldview changed, some of the stories began to leave a sour taste in my mouth.
Two of them involve a young girl’s idea of marriage.
My oldest cousin was four years old when she had chicken pox. Her mother kept warning her not to scratch, as mothers of chicken-pox-riddled children tend to do.
She scratched. As chicken-pox-riddled children tend to do.
When she recovered and her skin cleared up, one mark on her face remained. She had a tiny scar from where she’d picked and picked at one little pox.
She was traumatized. She wailed (in Yiddish) “no one will want to marry me now!”
My younger sister was about seven years old. She loved doing housework (wow, how times change!), and my mother often indulged her by giving her small jobs to do around the house.
Even at seven, she would always be singing as she cleaned. It was quite pleasant, to have a little girl singing as she swung her dusting brush around, while I stood and washed load after load of dishes or ironed load after load of white shirts.
One Friday afternoon, my mother assigned her to polishing the banister of the staircase. She happily set to work, but the bliss didn’t last very long this time.
That banister was old. It was wooden, with white paint, but the paint was chipped and had never been retouched. There were flecks of gray on the bars that would never come off.
My sister didn’t know that. She scrubbed and scrubbed at each baluster, and grew increasingly desperate as she accomplished nothing.
Finally, she sat down on a step and wailed in despair, “How will I be able to get married, I don’t even know how to clean!”
Both of these stories are retold with amusement, with a sense of “oh, how cute!” And when I first heard them (or witnessed, in the case of my sister), I didn’t think very deeply about them. Kids say crazy things – here’s another cute, crazy thing a kid said.
Now, though, I can’t help my stomach turning when I hear these stories. What they say to me now is not “oh, kids, how cute,” but “what kind of ideas are these little girls getting about marriage that they say things like this?”
The fact that such little girls react to anything unpleasant in their lives with an immediate reflection on how it will affect their marriage chances is already troubling. Add to that how one’s self-assessment is based on looks and the other’s is based on housekeeping abilities…
Some of that could be attributed to “cute, crazy kids.” But some of that has to be attributed to the messages they get about what to expect in life.
Now I’m distrustful of all the stories in my family’s storybox…