I cleaned out a bunch of books this weekend. There are cabinets in our bookcase that I probably haven’t opened since we moved six years ago.
And what did I find but eight — EIGHT — Thurber books.
To understand the significance of this, you have to understand that Thurber is practically a religion for my sister (venerating our mother, of course).
The holy book of this unholy maternal worship is The Thurber Carnival. There is a dingy brown-and-orange hardback copy of it that was our mother’s, which I am sure is in my sister’s possession now.
This is the only Thurber book that counts, of course.
Yet over my younger years, I apparently collected EIGHT different books of Thurber. There is a kids book, which I am sure no one else has ever read. I even read his biography once.
Thurber is something that never fails to make my sister laugh. But in her hands, it is humor that excludes: a kind of a specialized language that the older siblings, especially, use to communicate among themselves, and exclude anyone who isn’t really in the club.
I guarantee not one family gathering goes past without some reference to Thurber. Just a few words of a cartoon caption from someone (but it has to be the “right” someone), and they are off and running and laughing themselves sick. Most of the time they don’t even have to finish the sentences.
Which would be fine — except that in-laws, for example, don’t have a hope of understanding what is going on, let alone of joining in the fun.
And for some reason, this conversation always seems to happen in the kitchen, or some other public, central place — and because it is so loud, with (certain) people shouting bits of prose at each other, and gasping with laughter, it grabs everyone’s attention, and takes over the entire gathering when it happens.
It is so much a part of my memories of family gatherings: it always happens. I can remember witnessing this display, trying to join in even, and eventually being pointedly aware that I was being kept firmly on the outside, looking in.
The humor of Thurber generates power for my sister by strengthening the bonds of the Triumvirate, and excluding anyone who doesn’t “get it” (because of course, they weren’t there) — thus neatly defining who the “real family” is, in a very subtle way, as it also emphasizes the all-important connection to Mom.
Today, I immediately recognize my Thurber collection for what it was: another sad, desperate, failed attempt to be accepted by my own family, to be admitted “into the club” — by my sister, and probably by extension, my mother.
It’s sad, but it didn’t make me cry, or want to cry. Instead it made me super angry by about the time I found the fourth one. It made me so angry to see this physical remnant of how I stupidly tried to earn acceptance into a group — or more specifically, acceptance by one person who runs the group — that has never had any intention of truly accepting me.
It’s funny how well I understood the unspoken communication, telling me that I am not a part of the “real” family, and it’s sad that I so diligently tried to find a way in anyway. Like it was my job to somehow become worthy of acceptance.
And it’s infuriating that my maladapted sister has the power here. Who died and made her the fucking arbiter of who is worthy to be in the club?
Oh, wait, yeah. Dad and Mom died.
And my sister has, equally desperately perhaps, tried to make me into nothing ever since. Her job would have been a whole lot easier if Mom had managed to hang on longer. Then again, maybe I would have figured everything out a whole lot sooner, in a post-Dad world, a world once again run by my mother. Who knows?
Normally, the chore of dropping off donations at various places is my husband’s job. But there is one box of books that I will be taking personally — or just possibly setting on fire.