“Mom! Tell Mallory she can’t do this!”
“If she puts on that play, I’m telling everyone she’s a liar!”
“She’s being totally unfair!”
“I don’t get buckets stuck on my head!”
I sigh, and put down the book I was reading. So much for a little quiet time. I’d managed to get a full chapter in before I’d heard the yelling. Now, the Pike household is always loud, but this didn’t sound good. I’m normally a fan of letting my children work out their own problems, but something told me this was an issue that needed an intervention.
I hadn’t even had to go into the kitchen though. A second later, Byron, Vanessa, Adam, and Nicky had all stormed into the living room, all still screeching.
“Whoa!” I hold up my hands. “Calm down, all of you. You don’t need to be yelling at me. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
“Mallory’s a liar!” Vanessa cries. I raise an eyebrow. Whatever my oldest daughter has done must be pretty awful, because Vanessa almost never raises her voice. She’s easily one of the quietest of my children.
“She’s awful.” Byron spits. “I can’t believe her.” His face is also bright red. Next to him, Adam’s clenching his fists, while Nicky looks close to tears and still muttering things about buckets.
“Okay.” I say, taking a deep breath. “Why don’t you all tell me, one at a time, what happened? I’m sure Mallory didn’t mean any harm by it--”
“She totally did.” Adam mutters. “She wants to make our whole family look like idiots.”
“It’s like she hates us or something.” Byron says. “And we didn’t even do anything! She just thinks that just because she’s good at writing, she can make awful plays about our family!”
Vanessa nods. “I would never write mean poems about any of you guys. And then Mallory says she’s writing the truth!” She looks up at me. “Mom, it’s the worst play ever. She makes it seem like it’s--it’s--”
“Like it’s a house of anarchy!” Byron spits out. “No rules or order,” he mutters to Adam, who nods vigorously. “Mom.” He continues. “Kids at school already make fun of us for having a big family. If Mallory puts on this play, it will ruin us. People will start saying that everything they already think about us is true!”
I take yet another deep breath, taking in the irate faces of my children. I’m no stranger to mediating scuffles. This though, seems deeper. More personal. It’s not just telling the triplets off for excluding Nicky yet again, or making Margo share her dolls with Claire. My kids squabble with each other all the time, even tease, but rarely take shots at our family as a whole. I’ve never had anyone yell at me that they dislike the way we do things. Most of the time, everyone seems pretty happy. It’s one of the things as a parent that I pride actually. For all the teasing that goes on, everyone is not just siblings, but friends. As I’ve always told them, we all look out for each other.
This is why it shocks me that Mallory, of all people, would write insulting things about our family. I sigh, thinking of my oldest daughter. Despite wanting to believe she had the best intentions in whatever she wrote, she has been different lately. Moodier, and spending more time reading and scribbling in her journal than interacting with anyone. I know it’s part of getting older (and she reminds me so much of myself at that age, it frightens me). Middle school hasn’t been easy for her, just like it wasn’t for me.
“Mom.” Vanessa is saying now. “Can you please talk to her? She won’t listen to us, but she might hear you out.”
“Yeah.” Byron mutters. “Before the entire school starts saying that the Pikes actually are raised by wolves.”
I nod. “I’ll take care of it.” I say. “And I doubt this will get around the school.” I smile at both of them, while trying not think about how much I’d love to have a chat with the kids who give mine grief. I’ve learned not to care when “friends” like Beth Perkins whisper about “that crazy zoo John and Dee are running,” because let’s face it, Stoneybrook is a town of busybodies, but the thought of my children being teased makes my blood boil.
Byron nods. “Thanks mom. I’m sure you can make Mallory lay off the crazy pills.”
“She’d better!” Vanessa says furiously. She turns back to the others. “Come on guys. We have picketing signs to make.”
“Wait!” I call out, but they’re already running furiously up the stairs.
I can already tell this is going to be a long evening.
“So.” John asks, handing me a glass of wine. “How was your chat with Mallory?”
It’s later in the evening, and we’re sitting in the living room after finally banning everyone from making more signs.
I accept the glass with a grateful smile. “Thanks.”
“You looked like you needed it.”
I groan. “That’s an understatement. As for the answer to your question, it wasn’t fun.”
My husband sighs. “Did you read the play?”
“I told her I would go to the rehearsal at school tomorrow, and then let her know if it’s suitable to perform--which I doubt it will.” I sigh, and lean my head against John’s shoulder. “From everything the others told me, it’s not very flattering.”
“It could be okay. Maybe Mallory’s managed to make it comedic.”
I sit up. “There’s a difference between comedy and hurting people. I’m terrified Mallory’s done the second. I haven’t seen Vanessa that upset since Jordan told her that she’d never be the next Emily Dickinson.”
“Why would she do that though? Mal loves us. Sure, we drive her crazy sometimes, but I can’t see her being vindictive.”
I roll my eyes. “She says she’s being autobiographical, and that she’s just writing what’s true. Truth be told, she’s driving me insane. That girl is so stubborn it’s unbelievable.”
John raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like someone else I know.”
“Hey!” I brandish a pillow at him. “Watch it.”
“It’s a good trait to have.”
I groan. “At times. Then it’s so hard because looking at Mal is like a mirror of myself at eleven, and I start thinking about how much I resented my family back then and it terrifies me that she feels the exact same way.”
“I highly doubt it. We’re nothing like your family.”
“You know what they say. You always want what you can't have. Maybe Mallory doesn’t want a family like mine--you’d have to be insane to want that, but maybe she wishes we were...different.” I sigh. “Eleven is an age when you really start becoming self-aware, start thinking about what you desire in life. I can remember watching how my parents acted, and vowing I’d never do that. What if Mallory is doing the exact same thing?”
“Dee, she’s almost a teenager. Resentment and angst is just part of the deal.”
I groan. “Please don’t say the T word.”
“It’s going to happen. Our children are growing up.”
“Next thing I know, she’s going to be locking her door when she comes home from school.”
“No she won’t. Come here.” He pulls me close. “You and Mallory’s relationship is not you and your mother’s. She loves you, and respects you. That’s why she wants you to see the play tomorrow.”
I’m quiet for a moment. “Why are you so good at putting things in perspective?”
He gives me a cheeky grin. “It’s what I do. I’m just spinning things to make them look positive. Lawyers do it all the time.”
“Ah.” I sigh, and move a bit closer to him. “Well, it made me feel better. Even though I’m still worried about Mallory. I don’t think she likes school that much right now, and is taking it out on us.”
“What are you talking about? She gets straight As.”
“That’s the problem,” I mutter. “You do well in school, and the other kids give you grief.”
“We can’t help it that we’ve got smart kids.” He grins at me. “Personally, I like that we’re a family of brainiacs. I love that Mallory reads on the weekends, and that Vanessa’s idea of a fun outing is going to the bookstore. Would you rather have kids who weren’t passionate about anything?”
“No.” I sigh. “I just wish that kids Mallory’s age thought of being ‘passionate’ as a positive thing. The fact is, if you’re an eleven year old girl, and opt for reading Jane Austen during lunch instead of following the latest fads, your life is going to be a little bit harder.”
“She’s going to be rewarded for it in the end,” John says softly. “Just like you were.”
I snort. “Yeah, but I had to put up with a hell of teasing and mean notes shoved in my locker before it all ended.”
“You also made the people who teased you cry.”
I smirk. “That I did. I confounded them with my superior verbal skills. In some ways, I’m glad Mallory’s inherited my sarcasm. It will serve her well.”
“Exactly.” He smiles at me. “And she has a family that loves her, and good friends. She’ll be okay.”
“I’ll keep telling myself that.” I say. “Maybe pass along a few of the insults I used with bullies.”
“Aww, you’re such a good mother.”
“We’ll see about that after tomorrow.” I groan. “I’m dreading that damn rehearsal.”
John leans over and kisses me. “One thing is certain about our house.”
“It’s never boring.”
I take another sip of wine, and nod in agreement.
“Mom, you wouldn’t cross a picket line would you?”
I raise my eyebrow at Adam. Himself and the rest of his siblings had decided it was an excellent idea to hold a protest against Mallory’s play outside the elementary school, complete with signs. Next to me, Mallory is moaning about being “so mortified,” which in my opinion is drawing more attention to us than the actual “protest.”
“Think of me as an impartial arbitrator.” I say to Adam, giving him an even stronger look. God, I can’t wait until this is over. I could barely sleep last night, worrying about Mallory, her silly play, and just what she thinks of our family.
Which really is so silly, because it’s my family, the kind of family I’d longed for all throughout my teenage years, and I shouldn’t even worry about what my eleven year daughter thinks. I should be telling her “tough.”
Instead, my stomach is turning flip-flops.
From the minute the play begins, my stomachache only gets worse. As “Jill” (obviously Vanessa) asks “Valery” why she can’t be as brilliant as her, it’s all I can do not to jump up and demand that everything be stopped.
The lines only get worse. I’m leaning forward to indicate that I’m paying attention, but I can’t even fully listen to the dialogue any longer. If I do, I’m terrified that I’ll start crying.
Of all the people I expected judgement and disdain from, I never thought it would be my daughter. It makes sense though. I hated my mother for insisting that I attend country club luncheons and play piano for my dad’s “associates.” I’d resented her obsession with perfection so naturally, Mallory would despise my lenience.
Get it together, I tell myself. You’re in an auditorium with elementary school kids, who won’t understand if you start bawling your eyes out.
I can’t help it though, and I have to brush away the tears that are daring to emerge. If there’s one thing I’m sensitive about, it’s my family. I’m proud of it, proud of all my children. Even the way everyone’s united against Mallory makes me proud in a weird way. It demonstrates their loyalty, their solidarity, and how they can insult each other all they want, but if someone messes with the whole family, there’s hell to pay.
Like I said, I can deal with the neighbors and the raised eyebrows from them, but even that hurts. It’s a thousand times worse when it comes from someone close to me. Suddenly, I’m remembering when my mother told me I was crazy for having triplets, how she still makes snide remarks about my “lack of family planning skills.” How I once overheard my brother Francis calling my house “the Pike insane asylum,” and how sometimes, my dad just looks at all of us, and shakes his head.
After the triplets had been born, I’d vowed to show everyone who’d said I was nuts that I actually could create a functional and loving family. I’d said I was going to have smart kids, who also knew how to have fun. It delighted me anyone complimented me how polite everyone was (they actually can be when they want to be) or how I must be “so proud” to have all of my children on honor roll. I was. Every positive remark made me think “see, I don’t have a house full of buffoons, no matter what all of you say.”
Unfortunately, Mallory seems to believe the opposite.
I take a deep breath, and steady myself. Thankfully, the abomination known as Mallory’s play is winding down. I know my consensus. Definitely no play unless my daughter agrees to a complete rewrite. That’s all I can think about right now, how I’m going to appear firm and assured when I tell her the verdict. I am after all, an impartial arbitrator.
I’ll deal with the emotional turmoil later.
I’m trying to make dinner, but I can barely focus on the recipe. I’m about to give up and announce that tonight’s a smorgasboard, when someone taps me on the shoulder.
I smile at Byron and Vanessa. “Yes. I would love that.”
“So.” Vanessa says, as she slices an onion. “Want to talk about it?”
I laugh at her grim expression. “It’s done. Mallory’s re-writing it, and hopefully, we can put it all behind us.”
“I still want to kill her.” Vanessa snaps.
Byron nods. “Me too.”
I take a deep breath. Once again, I am fighting back tears, for reasons I don’t fully know. “I don’t think that would help with anything.”
“Could we at least hide her pens and journals?” Byron asks, with a hopeful smirk. “Then she couldn’t write anything else!”
“She’d buy new ones.” Vanessa says. “I think I should pretend to be the ghost of Emily Dickinson, and haunt her room. Then, I can tell her that her writing is so horrible, and she should never write another word.” She pause, smiling. “I bet she would listen to such a reliable source.”
“No one’s haunting anyone.” I say, firmly. “Look, the resentment is going to fade. I think Mallory’s realized she’s sorry.” I sigh, thinking of her face when I’d calmly told her “it’s pretty insulting” when she’d asked what I’d honestly thought. John’s right. She might not agree with everything I do, but she does value my opinions.
“She’d better be.” Byron snaps. “I still can’t believe she’d do that.”
“Help me butter the rolls.” I say firmly.
He looks at me, cheeks red. “I’m sorry mom. It’s just that--that--”
“I just lost a lot of respect for her.” He mumbles. “I’ve always looked up to Mal, and now I don’t know what to think.”
“How do you think I feel?” Vanessa wails. “I used to let her read my poems!”
“I used to ask her what books I should read next!” Byron savagely pokes at a roll. “Now I know what she really thinks, I don’t want to read anything she touches.”
Obviously, it will take more than a re-write to restore peace. I can’t even tell them off as Byron begins to tell Vanessa that Adam had suggested short-sheeting her bed. After all, I’m still upset too, but I can’t stoop to their level.
“I think,” I say slowly, “that your sister is going through some things right now, and she doesn’t quite know how to process them. Wait!” I hold up my hand as Vanessa begins to open her mouth again. “The bottom line is, she loves you guys, and she didn’t mean to hurt all of you as much as she did. She honestly thought this play would help her writing, and I think she did learn some important lessons.” I take a deep breath. “Besides, we all screw up sometimes. Mallory’s sorry, and I think all of you should focus on accepting her apology and the fact that she’s willing to change the play, instead of how angry you all are.”
There is silence for a moment. Then, Vanessa hugs me tightly.
“You’re right mom.” She says. “It’s just hard, because I’ve never been this mad before.”
“The joys of siblings,” I say, kissing her on her forehead. “You love them intensely, so when you’re angry, it’s about a hundred times more extreme.”
“We’ll get over it.” Byron says softly. “Eventually.” He hugs me as well. “Mom?” He asks.
“You know we love you, right?”
I laugh. “Of course I do.”
“Good.” He says. “Because our family can be--well I don’t want to say crazy, because that’s what Mallory thinks.” He pauses for a moment. “We’re different.” He finally says, “but we’re also awesome.”
It’s all I can do not to start crying again.
“The fact that we’re different makes us awesome.” I smile at them.
“Yeah, and lots of people think we’re great.” Byron says. “Mrs. Spier and Mrs. McGill always say that they love how close we are.”
“Mom?” Vanessa asks. “Are you okay?”
I hug them both. “I’m great.” I manage. “It’s just been a long week.”
Suddenly, Vanessa stiffens in my arms. I look up. Mallory is standing awkwardly in the doorway. Her eyes are red.
“The traitor dares to come downstairs.” Vanessa snaps.
“Vanessa.” I say, warningly.
“Hi Mallory,” Byron says, a little stiffly.
“Hi,” she mumbles, looking at the ground. “Can I talk to mom?”
“Anything you say to mom, you can say to us!” Vanessa says fiercely.
“Vanessa, go set the table.” I say. “You too, Byron.”
“Mom!” She stomps her foot.
“Vanessa, get plates.” Byron says. “Mallory can apologize to us later.”
I give him a grateful look. Vanessa glares at her brother, but does move into the dining room.
Mallory stands there for a few more seconds, before I move over, put a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m not mad,” I say, softly.
“I’m sorry.” She chokes out. “I never meant to hurt you. I saw your face at rehearsal, and I really didn’t want to make you upset.”
“I just wanted to write something funny!” She wails. “Something that you’d be proud of, and something that I thought really reflected all the crazy stuff our family does, but I just made a big mess.” She pauses dramatically. “Just like everything I do.”
The teenage angst soap opera is beginning, complete with fogged glasses from excessive amounts of sobbing. The difference between my teenage angst and my daughter’s is that despite the drama and the tears, she still wants my approval, my advice.
“You didn’t make a mess,” I say, gently. “There’s plenty of room to salvage this. You’re going to write a better play, and turn in an excellent report, all about your growth while doing this project.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “You’re only eleven, Mallory, and you just wrote an entire play that’s going to be performed. That’s not a mess, but something to be proud of.”
“Yeah.” She sniffs. “I still hurt your feelings though, and I’m sorry. I really do love you, and our family, even though I do get frustrated sometimes.”
“Everyone messes up sometimes,” I say, gently. “You’ve realized what you did wrong, and you’re going to make things better, so you have nothing to worry about. You’re too hard on yourself sometimes.”
“You don’t hate me then?”
“No.” I sigh. “Far from it. I’d being lying if I said that play didn’t upset me, but like I said, I see that you really didn’t mean any harm by it. I know you love us, and I know how important writing is to you, so I’m willing to let it all go.”
She nods, but she’s still crying.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” I pull her into a hug. “I told you, I’m not mad.”
“It’s just everything!” She chokes out. “Growing up sucks!” Then, her cheeks turn pink. “Sorry.” She mumbles. “I mean, there are some challenges to getting older.”
I pull her closer. “I liked your first word choice better. It was more honest.”
“Hardly eloquent though,” she snorts through her tears.
“It does feel like it sucks now.” I say. “I remember. It’s going to get better though.”
She looks at me. “Promise?”
“You’re looking at someone who survived the horrors of middle school, and is currently very happy.”
“It’s just hard to imagine right now,” she says, softly. “I just can’t help who I am. You and dad raised me to be smart, and passionate, and to always stand up for what I love, but for some reason, that classifies me as a loser.”
“Middle scholars are dumb.” I smile at her. “You just have to learn to deal with them, and keep showing them that you’re not going to apologize for who you are, just because of some immature taunts.” I look at her. “You know what you want Mallory, and so do your siblings. That’s not a defect.”
She smiles at that. “I do,” she says. A dreamy smile comes across her face. “I want to be a writer. That’s all I want. Well that, and to own horses.”
“Very good aspirations.” I hand her a kleenex. “And this play is one step closer to your dreams, so after dinner, start revising. After all, that’s what all the greats did--they never just handed in a first draft.”
She hugs me again, more tightly. “I love you, mommy.” She whispers.
“Mutual.” I smile. “And like I said, I promise everything is going to work out.”
“I’ll start with the play.” She says. “Can I eat in my room, while I work? After all, it’s what all the great writers do.”
I smile. “I’ll allow that.”
As Mallory rushes from the kitchen, I let out the largest breath so far. Slowly, things are returning back to normal, or as normal as things can ever be in our house.
Like I said, I’m not looking particularly forward to raising a teenage daughter, but I know I can get through it, maybe even with a bit of grace. Mallory might challenge things, but she doesn’t want them completely disrupted.
For deep down, I know that she loves that no matter what, our house is never boring.