I stopped, relaxed and laughed. This saying goes way back in our family, actually before Mike's birth. It dates back to the time when I was two years old and, for reasons known only to my toddler self, would rush into the bathroom, shut the door and push the lock. For a short time, I would prance around, giggling and gleeful at my own cleverness. Then I would decide I wanted out. But the door wouldn't budge. After trying the door unsuccessfully several times, I'd start wailing, falling to the floor in anguish and despair. Through the door, my father would say "Baby, push the little button. Just push the little button, baby." More often than not, I'd stay on the floor, wails escalating to screams. And my father would finally get a ladder, crawl through the bathroom window and free me once more.
To this day, at any signs of cluelessness on my part (and there have been many), someone in the family will say "Just push the little button, baby!"
Then there is the legend around Mike: when he was a toddler, he dismantled everything from the toaster to the telephone. For years, even after Mike had been out of the house for decades, if father found something falling apart or broken, he would shout "Dammit! He's been working this over!"
During a recent visit, Mike's daughter Maggie was concentrating intensely on removing the knobs from all my lower kitchen cabinets. The minute we spotted her, Mike and I turned to each other and said "Dammit! She's working it over!" He quickly intervened and stopped any further dismantling of my kitchen.
For my 30th birthday, my father gave me a cassette tape he had made from an old reel-to-reel recording containing an exchange between the two of us that had become a family legend.
I was three years old and Father had come up with a great idea for putting me to bed. Reading one bedtime story was never enough. So, to save time and aggravation, he decided to set up his tape recorder, read and record a story and then play it in an endless loop until I gave up and fell asleep. As he was about to start, I asked if I could tell him a story. What followed was an endless narrative that covered family history, world events, gossip I had picked up from my mother and little known facts (and fables) about various types of animals.
At one point, right in the middle of an impassioned story about my Uncle George's death in World War II and my mother's anguish on hearing the news, I stopped and asked my father "Do you want me to tell you about turkeys, too?"
"Yes," my father said. "But only after you finish telling me about the war."
And I went on...and on .. and on...until my father's soft snores resonated in the background. The tape ends with my childish voice saying with increased urgency: "Father, wake up! I want to tell you another story about when I was a baby! No more stories about animals, I promise!"
To this day, whenever I am going on and on, or have started a major tangent in the middle of a conversation, my brother or sister or husband will ask gently "Are you going to tell me about turkeys, too?"
One particularly standout legend is more primal. Mike is 3-1/2 years younger than I and, for all of our childhood, I heard "Don't hit your brother! He's smaller than you!" I obeyed the orders, but inwardly created an inventory of anger and frustration, telling myself that when he grew up a little more, I was going to get him and get him good.
The moment came when I was 16 and he 13. It arrived as we argued about drawer space in the tiny bedroom he, our sister Tai and I all shared. To make more space for himself in a communal drawer, he had thrown away my treasured diary, but not before reading and memorizing key segments and reciting them back to me. I lunged at him, ready to slap him, when he caught my wrists and held me at bay. I had waited too long! My baby brother was stronger than I! Enraged, I wrested my right hand out of his grasp and, in doing so, accidentally tore the cuff of his shirt. Suddenly inspired and shrieking like a banshee, I began shredding and ripping his shirt off his body as our six-year-old sister sat at our feet, shaking with sobs because she had never seen me angry. By the time our parents arrived to mediate, the shirt was in tatters and we were starting to laugh, well on the way to being friends again.
But to this day, if I look at him a certain way, Mike will put his arms across his chest protectively and plead "Please don't tear my shirt. It's the only good one I have."
Sayings and legends help us to laugh and love together through all the seasons of our lives, connecting past with present, underscoring our cohesiveness as a families, warmly linking what was and what is. Thanks to our memories, our stories, our philosophies that have grown through shared experience, we can work together through momentary annoyances and gently remind each other when we talk too much, are clumsy or clueless.
These life-enhancing legends may live in families of origin or between long-married couples. My husband Bob often wonders how those who are widowed or divorced after long marriages cope with building a whole new history of in-jokes, verbal short-hand and life stories with a new partner -- and where and how does one begin?
The in-jokes may be incomprehensible to another, based as they often are on a moment in time, a shared memory of a time long past, the very fabric of a relationship that has survived so many changes and so many years.
Our family legends, in-jokes and sayings are as irreplaceable as the people who share these with us.