Half-massacred burgers scraped into stinky trashcan. Strangled juice boxes left for dead across a dining table. Some spicy pumpkin brand of smelly candle mixed with the smallest hint of freshly opened beer. Beer gripped in the hands of husbands drooling over a football game. A grandmother scrubbing dishes over a too-full sink. Her grandkids out front, swirling juice-drunk loops on bicycles, dropping handlebars to the ground for an impromptu game of Climb Trees, Scream, Then Throw Things. And the daughters, these grandkids’ mothers, plopped post-dinner on the back patio.
I sat with my oldest and youngest sisters, quietly questioning whether a burp or a poot would most effectively make the ten pounds of cookout grub digest a little quicker. Looking around I notice the tentative way one of them sits, legs crossed but squeezing something in. I recognize the close-lipped, puffy-cheek expression on the other’s face and realize all too late that they are both feigning politeness and waiting for privacy. Oh well. I’ve already disguised a burp with a cough. Cough was a little too enthusiastic and produced a poot. I know they both hear and smell my indiscretions, but we are all from the same cloth. One purposely avoids eye contact while the other raises her voice as if to drown out all future bodily functions. I am suddenly so happy we’re related.
She mentions various thoughts she has about cleaning house. I think to chime in, add something about my genius method of spraying a little Windex into every room so it smells like I’ve always just finished cleaning. And then we move on to very thrilling things: Halloween costumes, minivans, loose teeth, and then back to cleaning house again. Then we are quiet for a minute. I’m not going to lie. I poot again. I wonder if I’ve pushed my sister’s willingness to cover for me when she begins giggling.
I’m about to explain myself, defend my grossness, when her little laugh grows to a chuckle then more of a belly booming guffaw. I am thinking this is just like a sister to defend you and your poots one second and then turn on you the next. But then she gets this amazed look on her face and I know my dinky gas isn’t enough to warrant such awe. “Oh. Oh my God. We are… so normal. We are sitting here talking about cleaning and kids and school and… We’re normal? We’re normal!,” she clasps her hands to her mouth like she has just spoken tongues, translating the mysteries of Lost and probably also Christ. She is astonished with herself. But then I pause. I feel us all holding our breath a little. The full magnitude of this tiny observation stuns us to silence.
I’ve often tried to trace the branch of my family’s black-sheep-ness back to its roots. When did we become so unacceptable, so socially inappropriate, so strange? Some days I think it must be something small: whipped with a hot spatula, my year without eyebrows, a sister’s boyfriend living in our basement, Dad’s regrettable mustache phase. Other times I cite the origin of madness as 1997 when my 7-year-old sister overdosed on Vitamin C. Tasked with babysitting, my older sister didn’t notice the empty jug of chewable supplements in the kitchen. I didn’t notice that little sister had been napping for 12 hours, and little sister didn’t notice that those weren’t delicious orange-flavored candies. There is the whole deal with watching television alongside my mother. She flipped between the butt-stapling guy on Jackass and Joyce Meyer’s evangelical ministry show with such swiftness that I’d spend the hour praying to Jesus for forgiveness because I couldn’t stop myself from finding the whole Lock A Guy In A Port-O-Potty & Shoot The Poop Tank Into Space stunt hilarious. Most typically I get lost somewhere between birth and age four. The best I can come up with is the time my brother conned me into playing a friendly game of toss. He hurled the massive basketball at my face but assured me that the very, very most important rule of the game was that I could not use my hands. It took a couple of bloody rounds until I realized he was the only winner and this family, this glue that would forever bind us, might just be flawed.
It seems that to the outside world, we have always been bad/ losers/ weirdos / sinners/ villains. We’ve had affairs and divorces. We’ve been to prison and abortion clinics. We’ve been teen mothers, drunks, and druggies. We’ve dropped out of high school. We’ve dropped out of college. We’ve been sluts. We’ve turned into pious prudes, condemning our hooker-esque kin. We’ve lied and stolen, cursed in church parking lots, and tossed chairs towards heads. We’ve been gay and straight and sometimes the gray space in the middle. We’ve screamed in defense of the gossip we spread with a hush. And while we’re being honest, I am almost certain Mom used the minivan to “accidentally” murder Bob, the neighbor’s dog. Essentially, someone call the police on all of us… for everything… forever.
So here we are on this night missing a sister and a brother to complete our ragtag brood of 5. Here we are laughing, three horrible girls, until we cry. And we cannot stop. We are wild with happiness because on this one night, we are rejoicing a sudden stop of the catastrophe that has always tailed us like a last name. The baby of the family, now a well-adjusted mother of two babies herself, is laughing and puzzled, “Huh. Seriously? We are all okay. We’re all fine now.”
“This feels like winning,” I am beaming,wondering if we could throw together a decent victory chant. My older sister claps like a baby who’s been handed a chocolate-coated pacifier. We settle for more frantic laughter like celebration.
And it is a celebration!
It is a victory!
Because we are all fucked up as fingerprints, no two tragedies the same, and somehow, while others fail with a tucked tail and a whisper, we’ve managed to dance right through the darkest dysfunction, to just… keep…functioning. Some folks hoist up impossible expectations. One must be a doctor or pay taxes, know who the Baby Daddy is and all those other burdensome tasks before feeling they’ve finally achieved something. I’ve watched whole TV shows about these alien clans. I’ve been accidentally uninvited to sleepovers with their prim, alien kids. All I can say is that normal doesn’t always come easy for the rest of us. But here we are on this back stoop. Here we are grateful and triumphant for being finally barely normal, wrong people who try to get more right every day. This is an imperfect group of lunatics I belong to, who conveniently believes in forgiving pasts and reconciling futures. And I’m thinking on this night on this porch with these sisters how it’s not nice to need such forgiveness right this minute, how I needed it so much and desperately not too long ago.
“Wow. Wow. No crisis? You know this is totally where the plot twist comes in, right? Like Mom’s gonna walk out here and tell us she is really a man,” I prepare my sister’s for the inevitable crash, our descent back to indecency. I know too well we can’t behave forever. Just then our mother joins us. We are ignited in hilarity again. “What? What? Ugh. Dammit. Ugh. Guyyys. Are you guys talking about me? What?,” Vicki be not pleased.
“Oh, Victor,” I shake my head at her, and we all laugh again. Has “normal” already passed us by? This time the sisters are searching for Mom’s secret wiener. They don’t even notice as I poot.