Sunday, June 7, 2015

Not Koan 163: Happy Families

She watched her grandmother sit down on the park bench next to the baby carriage and thought about how she'd never expected, when she was younger, that she'd have four generations of her family together.

"Who's that kid with your son?" her father asked.

He jerked his thumb to indicate the tanned boy with a muddy shirt. The boy was building a mound of mulch next to her son. He stood half a head taller and about a year older. By his side, her son tried to scoop up mulch with a bucket. He dropped the bucket. The contents spilled. But the taller boy knelt and scooped his arm to gather it up again for her son.

"That one gets neglected." She shook her head. Her son seemed to like playing with him. This particular playmate was cute, too, with light brown eyes and curly hair. He seemed a bit wild with children his age but gentle with younger ones. "I've never seen his parents. He hikes back and forth from a row house."

"That's not neglected," her grandmother opined from the bench next to them. "I let your father walk everywhere he wanted when he was little. You too, when you visited."

"Things are different now, grandma." She loved her grandmother, the first woman in the family to get a college degree. She had been an education pioneer. But the passage of the decades made her views seem archaic sometimes.

The three of them, mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother had walked her oldest boy to the neighborhood park. It had been a good morning for it, overcast but not humid. The birds turned out in force to sing to one another from the tree boughs. But after a few minutes, the clouds drifted. The sun beat down harder. The birds quieted. Children started to wipe the sweat from their brows.

The family had barely sat down. Her boy had just started playing. She wanted to leave because of the weather but she knew that she couldn't.

"Well, of course times are different," the older woman folded her arms as she watched the curly-headed boy dump fistfulls of sand on the pile. Her great-grandson flung clumps of grass. Both children laughed. The older woman smiled at them. "What makes you think this child is neglected?"

"Nowadays most parents come out to the park. That's all."

"Don't other people have anything better to do than follow kids around?"

Feeling protective of them all, she decided that she would let her grandmother's remark stand without comment. She could have pointed out how all three of them had come with her boy and her baby, a year-old daughter she'd brought in the stroller. But the job had required only one, probably her. Maybe that depended on whether the baby stayed asleep or not.

"Parents nowadays spend more time together than you and granddad did. It's more equal."

"That's good." Her grandmother kept her arms folded. She'd fought for the equality but she didn't seem to feel it was enough. She acted as if she were superior.

"Couples split things evenly. My husband and I still split the check when we go out on a date."

"Still? Damn." Her father slapped his knees with both hands. The two boys shot him a look, alarmed, but when they saw he wasn't looking at them, they resumed their work on the mulch. "Are you still counting them out to the penny, too?"

"What if we are?" She put a hand to her forehead.

"Honey, that's ridiculous." He threw up his arms. "It's like you don't trust each other. And you've been married for over a decade."

"It keeps us happy." Let him have his tirade, she thought. Outwardly, she shrugged. She was sure that her father had never liked that part of equality even though he'd always pretended. "You should try it, dad. I know that you and step-mom argue about money."

"Sometimes." That quieted him.

"You earn twice what she does. And you both have expensive tastes, so you end up paying pay for everything. She takes you for granted."

"Yeah, yeah." He scratched his head. While he paused to find something nice to say, the boys started to take turns kicking their pile. Pieces flew. Her father hardly noticed. "She carries her weight in other ways. She probably feels taken for granted in the chores."

"Are you happy, dad?"

"Happy enough." He titled his head to one side. "Happier than I thought I'd be, actually, after your mom."

"Everyone condemns everyone else's compromises, I notice," she said. She was tired of getting criticized for the way her family worked. "But some wives, like me, hate doing the laundry or shopping and some husband think they're okay. See? And some husbands don't enjoy fixing the plumbing. But some wives do."

"Like you."

"Like me." She nodded.

"I think that's wonderful," said her grandmother. She still hadn't unfolded her arms.

"The main thing is to divide up the work so everyone feels respected because that's what makes us happy."

Her father waved his finger. "That doesn't mean splitting everything down the middle."

"No, but dad, down the middle is fine for me. I earn half of the money. When we divide up a check, it feels good."

She and her grandmother sat in silence. Next to them, her father stood with hands in his pockets, jingling his change and his keys. For a long time, he stared at a squirrel that had scurried behind a group of playground kids to look for dropped food. It paused to eye the adults, especially her father. Maybe it thought the change in her father's pockets sounded like nuts. But it returned to its foraging.

Her father gazed down the sidewalk to the path would take them back home. She felt sympathy for his impatience. Although the tree roots had cracked the concrete slabs from underneath and the surface felt uneven to the baby stroller, she wanted to get back on it, too. The park had seemed like a decent enough idea to her when the morning was cool. But it hadn't seemed interesting to her father even then. Now that it was hot, he would start to sweat in his long-sleeved shirt and office slacks.

He'd invited himself because her grandmother wanted to come. He'd felt obligated.

After a minute or so, the baby woke. The cry began with an uncomfortable squirming. A moment later came the angry sound. After that, chubby fists raised from the carriage bed.

She rose to check her infant daughter's forehead. It was damp.

"I think she's too hot," she said. Her grandmother raised an eyebrow but didn't respond.

The baby kept fussing. She pushed the carriage back and forth to try to calm her daughter with the rocking motion. Meanwhile, her gaze swept the playground for her son. He and the neglected boy, who she conceded might have reasonble parents somewhere, had gang-pressed another boy into playing some sort of game with them on the slide. It involved tagging each other hard at the end of the ramp and then squealing like fiends.

"Are you really happy, dear?" Her grandmother unfolded her arms from her chest at last. She sat up straighter. "Tolstoy wrote, 'All happy families are alike but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.'"

"That's just wrong."

"It wasn't just Tolstoy who thought it," replied her grandmother defensively. "Everyone quotes him."

"Too bad. Because everyone can see that there's a variety of good families." She stopped rocking the carriage. It wasn't working. She was pretty sure of what she needed do. "There are as many happy compromises as there are happy couples. The same goes for the relationships between parents and children. All of the compromises are different but they work."

"For happy families."

"Yes." As she reached into the carriage for her daughter, she tilted her head to one side to concede the detail. "Maybe the process doesn't work for the unhappy ones. Bad compromises are the cause of misery."

"Well, I made compromises with your grandfather," her grandmother said. "I didn't want to. I had to, you know."

"Tolstoy was a good observer in some ways." She wasn't sure if she wanted to hear more about her grandfather or not. Tolstoy seemed like a safer subject. Her fingers snuggled under her daughter's armpits. She lifted the child and unbuttoned the onsesie to let the breeze reach her skin. "But he couldn't have observed many happy families. Even the assumption that some are happy and some aren't is wrong. All families are happy some of the time and all are unhappy sometimes, too. No family is only one thing."

Her daughter paused to take a breath. Then she cried louder.

"That's certainly not how children are." Her grandmother had to raise her voice. "They don't stay in one mood for five minutes."


"Look at us, we're arguing. And you said we were a happy family."

"That doesn't mean we're not." This wasn't an argument, not compared to most discussions in her grandmother's house. "You like arguing. You should just admit that Tolstoy was wrong."

"I admit nothing. Except that I'm tired of you two walking me around everywhere." She swayed in her bench seat as if she were about to stand. But she thought better of it. "I wanted to come to the park. That was me. I was willing to take my great-grandson. Then you two had to tag along."

"I thought you wanted company," her father said. He stopped rattling his keys. His hands came out of his pockets. "Sometimes you fall, ma. And when you do, it's hard for you to get back up."

"I'm still tired of having you everywhere I go."

"You need someone with you," she said. Her words came out at the time time as her father spoke but he said almost the same thing.

"I'll have company," her grandmother retorted. She gestured to the playground.

"Him?" She glanced at her preoccupied son. He was receiving swats from two other boys as his feet hit the landing at the bottom of the slide. All three of them laughed, open-mouthed. "He's six."

"That's old enough to run a few steps to get an adult to help me to my feet if that's necessary. Anyway, you're the one going on about happy families. You're tired and cranky. Your father is cranky. My great grand-daughter is tired and cranky."

"I'm not cranky," both she and her father tried to say. Her grandmother spoke over them.

"My great-grandson and I aren't. We're happy." Her hands made fists. She tapped the park bench with them. "Understand? I can tell you're trying to think of a reason to leave. But we want to stay."

"You just want your way."

"And you just want yours." Her gaze fell on the crying infant.

"Fine." She shrugged. In her arms, her daughter took another deep breath. And she didn't resume her crying. "Grandma, doesn't this prove my point? All of the family compromises are different. Happy families aren't all the same."

"Tolstoy was an idiot." The older woman sighed. "There's an endless variety of happiness. I never let on to your grandfather but some of the compromises that I arranged with him made me happy. Like having his children."


  1. Good piece. What works for one family, doesn't necessarily work for another. Families are relationships. Relationships take respect, love, work, time and most of all they need communication to work. They need to be fluid and allow for growth and change...there needs to be compromise, understanding and forgiveness when it is called for. Hugs! :)

  2. Thanks. I admit, it took a while for the characters in the story to come to the obvious conclusion that Tolstoy was wrong. They still got there quicker than I did in real life, though. All of our family compromises are different and many of them work very well.