Like the House of Cadmus—the doomed royal family of Oedipus and Antigone—the gods cursed my family. No, we’re not doomed to marry one another and gouge our eyes out with stickpins. Instead, the gods constructed our bodies like those wooden puppets one finds in old time toy shops—those rigid little soldiers or scarecrows who stand erect on cylindrical pedestals, but who, with the press of a small button, instantly dissolve into a crumpled jumble of limbs. In other words we fall on our asses with ridiculous frequency.
Somewhere, someone—some unknown entity—has exclusive access to our crumble button, and at any time any one of us may fall to the ground without warning. Looking at us stumbling around, you’d think we’re all a bunch of drunks—Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley on an AbFab bender. But no, it’s merely that our ankles suddenly turn to rubber at the most random of times, and we are powerless to stop it. It’s hereditary; I’m convinced of that. My father doesn’t suffer from it, but my mother and most of my maternal relatives walk around knowing that at any moment we’re on the verge of an epic digger.
Because of this, we’ve developed a measure of prowess and grace when we’re falling . . . it’s not a great measure, but it is a measure nonetheless. And we have earned a resilience that makes the falling bearable and a little hilarious. With that in mind, I offer a brief anthology of some of our collective spills. Our greatest hits, so to speak.
1. What Big Feet You Have, Gramma
My maternal Grandmother—we call her memere (meh-MAY, for those uninitiated into French Canadian slang)—had seven kids, all of whom had kids, and all of whom have busy lives. This makes it all but impossible to get everyone together. But anyone who raised seven kids has got to have a certain unyielding reserve of patience and ass-kickery, and so every once in a while she prevails in gathering everyone—or mostly everyone—together.
At this particular reunion, we all assembled on the lawn to do what families do best: destroy each other’s self-esteem with crippling and hilarious insults about weight gain, receding hairlines, divorces, and badly behaved children. Memere presided over this gleefully, ensuring that everyone’s wine glasses were filled literally to the brim. She also snuck in the wittiest remarks, jellyfish-like, stinging when least expected, and reducing everyone to laughter. All seemed well. In fact, I think we forgot our curse. Like the characters in Jaws, we couldn’t hear the familiar and terrifying strains of the dramatic score that signaled our impending doom. We laughed, we drank wine from goblets the size of stockpots, and we let down our guards.
Memere got up to use the loo.
None of us noticed how big and terrifying the concrete stairs up to the house were—nearly five-feet high, and pock-marked and pot-holed from years of chiseling off New England snow and ice. Ignorant of our fate—foolish mortals that we are—we continued the gaiety in her absence. And probably most of us didn’t notice as Memere emerged from the house and stood at the top of the steps. We all noticed, though, when suddenly she melted down the stairs like butter over a hot corncob.
Everyone ran. Scary as it is to experience the fall, it’s far worse watching someone else experience it. And, like all such events, it happened in slow, stop-motion. One moment Memere stood at the top of the stairs, offering to replenish anyone’s drink; the next, she slithered down the stone steps; the next, she landed face first on the driveway. Then the explosion of action, as people ran to help her up, as others called the emergency room asking for advice, and others stood by helplessly hoping that something terrible hadn’t just happened.
Of course, Memere got up and emerged from the fall with only a sprained wrist and a bruised ego. And secretly, I think, we all expected that to be the case even as we worried something worse had happened. The gods may have given us rubber limbs, but the fringe benefit of being made from rubber is that you bounce back quickly. We know it all too well—we’ve all been there. What may have hurt Memere more even than the wrist was that everyone suddenly had huge amounts of ammo to ridicule her with for the next few months—because, now that it was clear she was fine, there would be no living down that theatrical fall. (And obviously she’d done it for the attention, anyway.)
2. Five Points For Execution
My parents are both (generally) very even-tempered. They’re not the type of people who do things for attention, they don’t resort to meanness or bitchiness very often (which makes me wonder where I get it from), and they’re not really known for being irrational. That said, they—like all parents—are prone to moments of surprising frustration or anger.
Such an eruption occurred when I was eleven. One weekend afternoon we all tramped out of the apartment and to the car for a trip to the mall. Von Trapp-like, we single-filed out of the house, dad heading up the line, my sister Lauren following behind, myself third, and mom bringing up the rear so she could lock the door. As I walked along the path, I noticed that my shoelace had untied. Concerned for my safety (knowing my family curse, and having heard horror stories about the dangers of untied shoelaces and mall escalators), I knelt down to tie my shoe.
Of course, mom didn’t see me.
In my defense, it never occurred to me that mom wouldn’t notice that I’d knelt down. I have a tendency to look at the ground a lot (maybe because I’m hyper-aware that I could be slow-kissing it at any moment) and I guess I assume everyone does that, so I didn’t think to say something like, “Hey mom, look out: I’m kneeling down to tie my shoe, OK?” I just assumed she’d see me and walk around me.
But she didn’t.
Instead she tripped on me, performing an elegant summersault over me. Anyone watching might have thought we planned it—aside from the somewhat inelegant way mom planted: on her face instead of her feet.
“You should try out for the U.S. Gymnastics team, Mom,” I said.
She didn’t find that funny. Instead (I’ll chalk this up to frustration over a lifetime of falling) she freaked the hell out. Dad, hearing what happened, joined in.
“You need to be more careful, Ben. Jesus. Don’t you ever think about anybody else? You made your mother rip her new jeans!”
“I was just tying my shoe!”
“In the middle of the walkway?”
“She couldn’t have walked around me?”
“DON’T BLAME YOUR MOTHER! You were careless! Do you want to buy her a new pair of jeans? Do you want to spend your birthday money on that?”
Their anger stunned me. Somehow my attempt to prevent an accident turned me into a nefarious little boy bent on destroying his mother’s denim, knee by knee. Of course, even as they yelled at me, I knew they knew they were being ridiculous. The voices were raised, but as the lecture continued they lost the courage of their convictions. You can always tell when a parent realizes they’re wrong in the middle of disciplinary action, but knows that admitting it will undermine years of hard work. Something in the voices changes and you know they’re phoning it in. In years to come, they’d laugh about it . . . and so would my therapist and I. But at the time it felt terrible—probably because, even then, I knew it was inevitable. And here I posit my theory: Mom would have gone ass-over-teakettle regardless of whether or not I was there. Fact is, the gods pushed that button, and when they push it, we’re helpless to stop the crumble. I was just a pawn in that evil and terrible game—a prop, if you will—an innocent actor in a cosmic play in which people dissolve to the sidewalk without notice. It’s almost Biblical—like Lot’s wife, only without pillars of salt and cities full of sexual deviants. I may be the only one in my family who accepts that theory, but I simply cannot think of a more logical explanation. Curse you, cruel gods!
3. I will beat you, ho
My sister’s nose ran like an Olympian when she was a kid. Streams of mucous flowed constantly from Lauren’s petite, freckled schnoz in watery, pastel trickles. We always knew where Lauren was because we could always hear her sniffling. Had she been a teen, we might have worried, was she doing something other than tinkle in the bathroom? (Luckily the geyser dried up by the time she reached kindergarten.)
That nasal fount turned pure slapstick one beautiful summer evening when Mom, Dad, Lauren, and I took a walk through the park. The trees were lush, and freshly mown piles of grass clippings created little vertical runways—like tracks—up and down the expanse in front of the baseball field. Everything smelled exactly like summer.
As we walked, Lauren suddenly turned to us—in her little white polka dot dress (she never wore pants), her red curls bobbing around her pale face, and clear ooze flowing from her nasal passages—and said, “Let’s race!” She turned, hit her mark, and shouted, “I will beat you ho—!” She wanted to say “I will beat you home,” but she fell flat, and half of the “home”—along with all of her face—landed in a dense pile of clippings.
When she stood, she sported a verdant mustache of fresh, fragrant greenery. She may have been embarrassed and, for all we knew, bleeding from the knees—but the site of Lauren with her sod-and-snot Chaplin mustache sent the rest of us to the ground in epic seizures of laughter. And it turned out she was fine, though “I will beat you ho—!” became a refrain that sent her running to her bedroom in embarrassment, and the rest of us into repeated fits of hilarity.
4. After the Fall
I’m known for having been something of a hellion as a toddler. Relatives tell me I specialized in hurricane-force tantrums, complete with screaming, hyperventilating, and red-faced rage. The rumor is that I often chose to produce these gala events in public—for maximum audience potential, and maximum embarrassment for Mom and Dad. (I’m certain that the gods are repaying me today, because screaming babies follow me everywhere I go.) I sometimes wonder how often my parents wondered if they could simply send me back or give me up for adoption. I suppose it is a testament to their character that they kept me.
I’d be tempted to deny these tantrums, except that I actually remember throwing one. It’s one of my earliest memories, and I don’t know what upset me, but I do remember thrashing and screaming as my mother tried to settle me. But there would be no settling me. Ultimately, mom had to pick me up from the torso, hold my kicking limbs as far away as she could, run into my bedroom, place me on the bed, then bolt out of the room to shut me in the before I could chase her out. Then, because she couldn’t keep me from opening the door, she took a length of clothesline, tied it to my doorknob, and then tied the other end to another door across the apartment; that done, the door could not be opened from inside the bedroom. (I have to give my mother credit for her ingenuity and for not using the clothesline to tie me up or strangle me.)
It’s likely that I’d still be that raving wild man, if on my third birthday something hadn’t changed me. Remember that movie Death Becomes Her? Remember when Meryl Streep goes flying down that big old Norma Desmond staircase, and it seems to take three-and-a-half weeks for her to hit the ground? I did that. And because we lived on the third floor of our mill-town tenement, there were a lot of stairs to fall down. (And isn’t it bizarre that my family and I always lived in third floor apartments? You’d think that people who fall as much as we do would try to avoid stairs at all costs.) After I finally hit the ground, I got to spend my birthday in the hospital.
I emerged from the ER a changed boy. Gone was the hellion and in his place a slightly nervous and thoughtful child had emerged. (Though not thoughtful enough, evidently, to warn people when he’s going to tie his shoe. Just saying.)
Because I’m a bad son, and probably a bad person in general, I like to joke with my parents that the morning of that dreadful fall, I was in the throws of a terrible tantrum and one of them couldn’t take it anymore—and pushed me. While my parents were traumatized that their first-born son had fallen down three flights of stairs and spent his third birthday in the hospital with a concussion, I make Mommie Dearest jokes and ask them if they like the way I turned out after the fall.
“What’d I do, Dad?” I’d say. “What was it Mom? Hmmm? Did I call you box office poison, or something? Did I mix your drink wrong? Did I forget to move the plant when I mopped? Or is it because I am NOT one of your fans?” Then I ask them if they’re going to beat with me a can of cleaner or throw me into the glass coffee table and wrestle me until the faithful maid and hulking lady-reporter come to my rescue.
But, of course, I know they didn’t push me. First, neither of my parents have much Joan Crawford in them—not in that way, anyway (my mother could never beat me with a can of bathroom cleanser, if only because I’m never close enough to a bottle of bathroom cleanser to get me with one). Second, the reality is that fall was fated long before my birth. Like my ancient ancestors and my closest modern relatives, falling is part of who we are. We’ve gotten used to it. None of us have died from it (yet), so it keeps us humble and amused. It’s difficult to take yourself too seriously when you know that at any time—strolling down the street, walking down the aisle at your wedding, walking to the electric chair, anywhere—you could be kissing the pavement at any moment. When you know that extreme embarrassment and mild-to-extreme pain lurk around every corner, and that there’s nothing you can do about it because you’re at the whim of a playful and sometimes cruel force, you realize you have two choices: one, wear as much padding as possible and stay in the house; or two, point and laugh at yourself—and those closest to you—as hard as humanly possible. And, after a few hours with pillows strapped to your body and bored of watching reality TV, you realize that there is in fact only one real choice, and that it’s hard to feel much pain when you’re laughing at yourself—and that you don’t feel any pain when you’re laughing at others.