Perfectionism

Old Earl–I saw this with my own eyes–Old Earl leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face–I was in the kitchen with them, just the three of us. They were sharing an early-evening snack with me. I was visiting as a friend of the family. She leaned back against the kitchen sink when he did this. He leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face, which fell, and a little fear came into her eyes, realizing that she had provoked her husband. I recognized the face.

Her daughter, my friend, had been ill and in the hospital, and while I was visiting her, the doctor came in to deliver bad news, seriously bad news: surgery and a very long recovery, along with an abrupt change of lifestyle. Her face expressed wonder girded up by fear and framed by anger.

I think her mother’s expression was anger slow-cooked over the course of several decades so that her face was now expressing tired rage. Nevertheless, she shrank because his own expression overpowered her resentment.

They called him Ole E which took me forever to understand as a diminutive for Old Earl and not Olie. They called him that, being a long-time president of a local, and under his leadership the local had grown, never experiencing any scandals with money or other kinds of abuse. He was telling his wife what time and where the great-grandkids’ soccer games were that evening. He went outside to take care of something in the yard. His wife relaxed and came to me, setting a bag of powdered doughnuts before me. I indulged.

“Do you have any children?” she asked.

“Two,” I said. “Two boys, 10 and 8.”

“I had two boys,” she said. “And a girl. Do you take them to church?”

“Almost every Sunday,” I said.

“Do you dress them up?”

“What?”

She looked at me, then she said. “I remember dressing the kids for church every Sunday. We would walk to church. Church is only three blocks from here, so we walked. It didn’t make much sense to start the car just for a three block drive. We walked to church every Sunday.”

“But you drive now?”

“Three blocks is an awful long way when you’re as old as we are.”

I wolfed another powdered doughnut. “I’ll bet,” I said.

“I used to press the boys’ pants into perfect creases, every Sunday morning, and then I hung them over the easy chair until just before we left for church. Do you know why  I did that?”

“No,” I said, licking the powdered sugar off my fingers.

“Every Sunday, right after I pressed the creases into the boys’ pants, I would do Lucy’s hair, so that the curls would be just right. It seemed to me that just about every time I was pulling the bow into her hair, trying to set it perfect, the boys would start wrestling on the living room floor.”

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “They’d mess up the creases in their pants.”

“That’s right,” she said. “So I started hanging their pants over the easy chair.” She laughed. “Such a funny memory: the boys in their underwear, a shirt, and a tie, wrestling on the living room floor. I lost my voice almost every Sunday morning, screaming at them to settle down.”

I wished at that moment I had had a little brother, or even a big brother, to wrestle with on Sunday mornings.

“Earl taught them to polish their shoes, and we made them polish their shoes every Sunday morning while I got Lucy’s hair right. Oh, I remember her glossy black shoes, Mary Janes!”

“Mary Janes?” I asked.

“Buckle shoes,” she said.

“Oh.”

“They slipped right over her perfectly white Sunday tights, and she walked so tall and so proud, leading the way to church. I can still see it to this day: we showed the whole neighborhood what a good Christian family looks like!”

“Lucy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Lucy doesn’t look like someone who ever wore white tights and black Mary Janes.”

“People nowadays have no respect for church. If they even go, they wear jeans and crumpled t-shirts, like they just rolled out of bed to meet the Holy Lord Almighty.” She shook her head.

One day, by invitation, I walked the path from Ole E’s house to the church, the full three blocks under the gaze of the whole neighborhood and God himself. It wasn’t a Sunday, but there was stuff going on. In fact, there was a hive of activity, busy little religious bees buzzing about, setting up tables for a fundraiser of some sort, baskets and displays emerging like so many six-sided cells. Over in one corner of the comb, several would-be queen bees were having a very quiet, but mortal, argument over who would be handling the money. I steered clear. Repudiated queen bees have a deadly sting.

On the day Lucy came home from a long stint in a rehabilitation facility, I saw Ole E put his nose into a nurse’s face, but instead of shrinking away, this nurse drew up in indignation. His wife suddenly piped up, “He does that to me all the time.”

Ole E stood, silent, thunderstruck.

The nurse replied, “You let him push you around like that?”

“Oh,” his wife said, “it’s not so bad if you just forgive him.”

“Forgive him? I’d never put up with that from my husband.”

His wife laughed. “You girls nowadays. You know, he got that from his mother, putting his nose down in people’s faces. She used to do that all the time.”

Ole E finally spoke. “I do that?”

“Your whole life,” his wife said.

Tears sprang into his eyes. “I do that to you?” In his face, I saw a wave of realization wash over him. “I do that to the kids?”

“You did,” his wife informed him. “But not anymore, now that they’re bigger than you, and out of the house.”

Ole E wheeled to talk to Lucy. “I did that to you?”

“My whole life, Dad.”

“Oh, dear Lord,” he said, sitting down in his son-in-law’s easy chair. “Oh, dear Lord. I didn’t mean to do that to you. I tried to be a good father. That’s not good; that’s what my mother did to us!”

I excused myself, wishing Lucy a happy and quick recovery.

Lucy told me, when I asked, that the whole family had been transformed. Not only had things gotten easier between her father and her mother, and easier with her and one of her brothers, but it had gotten more tense between her father and the other brother. Until Ole E’s dying day, Thanksgiving and Christmas were gala affairs, with more wine spilled, and more laughter with it, and also palpable tension with the brother who retained the perfection instilled in him in his childhood.

The funeral was a gala affair, with one third of the family excusing themselves quite before the celebration had begun.

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