My father was a tease. His preferred mode of communication was teasing, which set the tone for our family gatherings around the dining room table. All of us, of course, adopted his manner. The insults were clever and cutting and so thick in the air that you could barely breathe. If you crumbled—if you cried or left the table and ran upstairs and slammed the door to your shared bedroom—then that failure to stand up to the teasing became the topic of the next round: you can dish it out but you can't take it.
We were used to this. This was the family environment.
But my father teased all children, not just his own. His sister, our favourite aunt, lived half a state away with her husband, her two sons, and her daughter, Judy, who was eight years younger than her closest brother.
By the time most of us had left home, my parents had a little more time and money than they had had when we were growing up. They were now able to travel several times a year to visit Daddy's sister, and she and her husband would also drive up the half-length of the state to visit their Carroll County relatives. So our little cousin Judy had the opportunity to spend time with my parents with few other children around.
My father liked to tease. Did I say this already? Here is how he related to his sister's little daughter, at the end of every visit.
When the visit was ending, Daddy would insist to Judy that she was coming with them. "Got your bags packed?" he would ask. "We're almost out the door. Go get your things or you'll have to come without them. Come on. We're leaving. Say goodbye to your folks. Come on. We're ready."
Judy, being the youngest of three and the only girl of three, was a protected child. A trusting child. Nothing had prepared her for this man who, several times a year, insistently tried to make her leave her parents and go to some other house. She didn't know what to do.
But she was scared to death. She was terrified that one time he would simply grab her up and take her to the car. There seemed to be no other input into this situation. Her mother seems not to have realized how very frightening it was for Judy. With or without her mother's assurance that this man meant no harm, Judy was convinced, over and over again, that the man was either insane or malevolent, and in either case he was definitely Bad News.
This went on, several times a year, for half a dozen years, or until Judy was finally of an age where she realized that this strange uncle had no power over her. From then on she was free to ignore and discount his teasing. But her scary uncle lives on in her memory.
The funny thing about this is that our Grandad, Daddy and our aunt's father, was equally unable to relate to his grandchildren in any normal way. He lived with our other uncle in the farmhouse where Grandad himself had grown up. We visited the farm several times a month.
Here's what I remember about Grandad. Whenever he saw his grandchildren, he would cut one of us out of the herd, fix the unfortunate child with a scary stare and ask, sternly, "How far is it from here to yonder?" The first few times this happened to you, you simply froze, unable to know how to answer such a strange question, so severely delivered. He would then cackle and say, "Three lengths of a fool; lay down and measure." Now, leaving aside the use of "lay down" instead of "lie down," which didn't escape my own precociously critical ear, what kind of riddle is this to present to a child? We were confused by it, insulted once we understood it, and in the dark as to why Granddad would ask us such a question.
My father, with his incessant and repetitive teasing of Judy, left her with memories that were no more flattering to him than are my own memories of my grandfather, his father. It is obvious that my father learned all he knew about dealing with children from his own father.
Believe me, he might have found a better teacher.
Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor