Middle child of six, my childhood can be best described as muddled — or better yet, “fair to middling” as my father used to say.
But charmed and enchanted is what outsiders saw.
My dad was a successful surgeon and my manic mom, a stay-at-home mom. Our six bedroom suburban home was well appointed 1960’s style: wing back chairs, antique sofa, oriental rugs. I had French Provincial furniture in my bedroom and my brothers had Ranch Oak bunk beds in theirs. And four bathrooms, so there was little need to share.
And all was spit and polished just about all of the time. Most of the time.
With six children, three adults, and a dog, the upkeep of the castle was intense. So Downton Abbey style, we had household servants. All African American, I am more than a little ashamed to say. Two full time maids: Nan and her daughter, Cornelia. And a handyman, a grown man, we shamefully called Sonny (Joseph, being his given name.). All members of the Simpson family. And Cora, whose last name I do not recall. She came twice a week to do the ironing.
Thanks to them, we were always freshly pressed in our uniforms or nicely dressed in our department store clothes. Shoes from Hahn’s or Stride Rite. Only the best.
And oh my goodness, we ate well too. Very, very well. My mom had a wall of cookbooks which she rarely consulted but seemed to inspire her nonetheless. While other kids had meatloaf for dinner, we dined on Beef Bourguignon. While other kids wolfed down fish sticks, we feasted on Filet of Sole Almondine.
And all six of us went to private schools: Holy Family, Gonzaga, La Reine, Immaculata — with all the standard extracurriculars: piano lessons, softball practice, swim teams.
We were privileged, well to do. And while we were not taught explicitly to look down on anyone else — it was made very clear that we were to be looked up to. Or least to act like we were. “Remember you’re a Peacock.” my dad would say every time we left the house. Like mini model citizens, our appearance was supposed to be polished, our behavior beyond reproach.
Materially we lacked for nothing – or so it seemed. While maternally and paternally, we were falling apart at the seams.
My dad the workaholic doctor was barely at home.
My manic-depressive mom retreated more and more behind her bedroom door — a door on which I was very nervous to knock.
Each morning, I would check out my mom like a weather report: dark and stormy; bright and sunny; cloudy with rain. The forecast was often in doubt and subject to change. When bright and sunny, my mom was the life of the party! Fun loving, story telling, cooking up a storm and shopping ’til she dropped.
I loved this mom very much – but as I grew up I saw her less and less. More and more she was dark and moody, drugged with valium, and with a drink her hand. Medicating herself for this malady for which we had no name. (Which now I truly understand.)
And this middle child — who was just a child – thought it my job not to upset her. I thought it my job to keep the peace, to maintain the status quo, not rock the boat in any way, if I could help it. So straight A, goody-two-shoes Joani kept her head down.
And little old me believed, that if I could be a better little kid, a better little daughter, a better little student, a better little Catholic — that I could keep my house from falling down on my head. I could keep my house from falling down and crushing us all.
Not my job, right?
Of course not.
My own healthy, bipolar, grownup self knows this now. Knows this to be true. I know that childhood chores involve making your bed, doing dishes, and picking up toys. No, childhood chores do not involve saving yourself and your siblings from your very troubled mom and your mostly absentee dad. Though I do believe they loved us as best they could.
But funny how history repeats itself. And funny how whatever we learned at our parents’ knees will stay with us until the day we die.
And it bubbles up in our grownup lives. Sometimes imperceptibly. Sometimes overwhelmingly.
I am still a middle child, peacemaker, model citizen, goody-two-shoes, bleeding heart, employee of the month. Raining sunshine wherever I go — or at least so I think.
And what goes wrong in my world – whether it be my fault or not — whether it be at home, or at church, or at work — I have the uncontrollable urge to fix it. Where things get rough, let me make them smooth. When things are sad, let me cheer you up. When things get messy, I will tidy them up. When others fail, I will take their place. When things get crazy, I will make them sane.
And I will tiptoe, tiptoe around “mom” — hoping against hope — that this “house of cards” wherever it is — this “house of cards” will not come crashing down on those who live or work there. On my head, or the heads of those I care about, on the heads of those I love.
Not my job, right?