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Chopping Down the Family Tree

by Wendy Parker

When her boss stopped speaking, Sandra became acutely aware of her weakness.

She had always known it was there. It had never seemed to matter much before. But now, she felt it keenly. What could she do though? This was her biggest chance yet, and she would have to reject it. There was no other way.

Sandra was about to tell him as much when something stopped her. She let the silence dribble down the phone line while she thought about it. What if...

Instead of telling him the truth flat out, she played for time. Could he give her a day to think about it? He could. She promised to call him tomorrow with her decision. He agreed, laughing. You're a cautious one, he had told her.

She went home, poured herself a glass of wine and stared at the off-white wall. She saw nothing there to make her think her basic character might have been redrawn during the half-hour drive home. It was the same old story.

Even as a child, she had seen how her weakness cost her the things she wanted. The more she had wanted, the more the loss had hurt. It had taken her forever to learn not to want.

There had been no help from at home, of course.

Her mother had pooh-poohed her anguish about her fundamental weakness, calling her too sensitive, and criticizing her introspection. But her mother had never listened to her laments with anything more than half an ear.

Sandra suspected that her mother had been only too aware of the soft spot in her own character. Certainly, it had played a starring role in her disappointing life. Instead of commiserating with her daughter, Sandra's mother had preferred to complain about others, usually her sisters or her husband, who had stood in her way. Sandra supposed that her mother was only too familiar with the family rot. She had preferred not to address it. She had dealt with it by ignoring it. She had gone to her grave refusing to confront it.

So Sandra had learned to navigate though life in the way of her family. From the beginning, she had enjoyed wonderful chances, chances that other children would have killed for. She readily admitted it. Her life had been filed with dazzling opportunities that should have set her on the path to a bright, successful existence. Each and every time, she would revert to type and tumble back into the safety of the crowd. She had never failed to fail, always falling short of her potential. She poured another glass of wine and pondered the words of her boss.

Here was another opportunity, better than she had ever received before. Her boss had come to her, asking her to put her name in for the director position. It was two steps up from her current job. It would vault her into management and put her on the fast-track for an executive posting. He thought she had skills to compete. And yet she had balked. Let me think about it, she had said. I'll let you know tomorrow, she had said. And he had laughed. What was that about, that laugh? Was he amused by her caution, or laughing at her? And yet, there had been warmth in it.

She thought about it. No. There was no way. As much as she wanted to move ahead, she knew that she would have to thank him and stand aside. She couldn't do it. It was too much. The thought of competing with younger, brighter people terrified her. She just couldn't do it. Not now. Not this position. She poured another glass of wine and considered her weakness. Understandably, she blamed her family.

Both her mother and her father had come from long lines of middling sorts. They were neither good nor bad. They were hard-working, decent people who had laboured all their lives to get nowhere in particular. There was nothing wrong with them, nothing you could put your finger on. But they were people who had shied away, at the crucial moment, from greater destinies. Each time the spotlight had swung toward them, each time they had earned the chance to grasp a nettle of good fortune, they had pulled back their hands and slunk back into the anonymity of the comforting herd, away from the bigger future that might have awaited them.

All of them. An unbroken line of them. Down the generations of two families that had culminated in her birth. Not one of them had ever seized the opportunities presented, in great, abiding numbers, to rise about their beloved mediocrity. No doubt they had hated that part of themselves. The ones she had known had consistently railed against their straitened selves, blaming everyone except themselves and bemoaning the unfairness of their lot.

Perhaps she was too harsh. She had to admit that she was no different. More gifted, perhaps, with intelligence and education. More blessed by the times into which she had been born. But no different than any of them, with their truncated existence. All of them, so much less than they could have been. They were all likable people trapped in limited lives, crated on all sides by their uncertain guilt and ambiguous longing.

Her stomach grumbled, and she thought she should make something nourishing for dinner. She decided it would be too much trouble. Much easier just to pour another glass of this sustaining red wine and let her mind rummage through the mental photos in her family album.

She saw it more clearly now. Those two lines stretching behind her. At the end of their genealogical journeys, both the families had come together to create an unbroken legacy of shrivelled hopes and misspent expectations.

There were so few of them now. And now, in her and her few cousins, whom she barely knew apart from Christmas cards and occasional phone calls, the two middling lines were coming together for the less-than-noble purpose of petering out.

What was it about them? What had caused them to see life as an act of contrition? Pulling at their forelocks, bowing and scraping to their betters, always apologizing for breathing air that might have been more usefully lavished on sturdier souls.

Oops. Pardon. Sorry. Excuse me. The vocabulary of her founding fathers. And now her task was to carry that vocabulary of contrition through the dark halls of her life into the long night of extinction.

For she was surely the last. None of the cousins had reproduced. For her own part, she had issued only dead babies. Three of them. One after the other. Stillborn, all. The last one, a boy, ejected late in the second trimester, and she alone at midnight in a basement bathroom of her tiny home, a hovel really, that she had bought, thinking, falsely, that she could turn it into a home for herself and her family. How could you fight it? You couldn't, could you? It was not to be.

All she had managed to do with her efforts was destroy her marriage to a young man who had wanted no part of new life, wailing infants or the drudgeries of parenthood. She certainly could pick them.

And now she was being asked to choose again.

Was it easier this time? To have faith that she could, at last, cut herself free from the branches of her tangled family tree? Was there anything to justify such optimism?

Well, it was flattering that they should think of her in those terms, as a leader, an up-and-comer, a person who could become something more than mediocrity. Of course, they knew nothing of her legacy.

But still. Of course, it was impossible. She would falter, stumble, stutter, fail and slide, again, into the muck of the dreaded, cursed and squalid aspirations of her miserable family.

And yet.

She knew she showed well. Bright, articulate, hard-working, ambitious. Brave as a lion when she laboured in the trenches under the command of others, as part of a slogging team. Or alone! She could beaver away unceasingly on her own, at her own passions, doing wonderful work, amazing work that was almost good enough to set her apart and boost her up.

But she knew she could never, ever take that last bold step that would lift her out of reach of their hands, those honest, decent, work-worn hands of the failures who were her ancestors.

To take that last step would thrust her into a spotlight and she couldn't bear the thought of it. She would be standing there, naked and alone, revealed as the daughter of Leslie and Doug, granddaughter of Ruth and Sidney, niece of Helen and Jimmy, Edward and Cynthia, cousin of Sam and Esmie and Thomas and Dot. It was better to hide with them under a bushel basket than to stand there alone in the glare of being different.

Think of it. If she were to compete for that job, win it and somehow, somehow, succeed at it, she would break the pattern. She could hear them now, her dear family. Oh, they'd applaud her and fawn over her. They would say how proud they were of her. But they would mutter behind her back.

She's putting on airs, they would whisper. She fancies herself. She's above her station. She has forgotten her place. She could hear her dear aunt's sharp clap. You ought to be ashamed of yourself! The malevolent hiss of it, cutting through her like a knife. Ashamed? For what? For daring to stand too tall and smile too broadly. For being too proud of yourself. For pushing to the front of the line, grabbing, not sharing, not being nice with the others, not letting the others go first. It was not respectable. Respectable people stood back and let others go first. Respectable people never shoved or pushed. They assisted. They served. Like eternal Boy Scouts, they rushed to help the old lady across the street, turning her infirmity into a public humiliation. No wonder she cursed them.

Was that what it was, at its root, all this family failing of theirs? Was it some kind of unspeakable, bloody arrogance? Was that the thing that lurked beneath all the politeness, the soft voices, the deference? Did they think themselves too good for the hurly-burly of struggle? The hard-scrabble climb was not for them. Nor the do-or-die mix-it-up. They weren't like that. They spoke well. They dressed nicely. They knew how to act in polite society.

But still.

At the root of it, did they - did she -- fail to try because the thought of failure was just too awful to contemplate? Imagine it! For these good and decent people to be bested by the snotty nosed rabble that surrounded their wood-frame bungalow! Unthinkable! All those filthy hands pawing at them, trying to pull them down. Worse! To be perceived as part of the grubby rabble that wants more, needs more, dreams of having more and fights tooth and nail to get it.

Unspeakable, bloody arrogance that made them assume they could sit and wait for success simply because it was their due. Tasty crumbs from the table for those who wait patiently. Not like those others who have to claw and scratch to get anywhere. That, then, was her legacy.

For suddenly she saw that her weakness, and the weakness of her family, was not the want of courage, nor the lack of spirit, but rather the arrogance of toadies who expected to get the best leftovers simply because they had waited table. Ich dien, milord, so where's mine?

Was that it? Was that why she hesitated to compete for this position, to acknowledge this honour, to accept this challenge? Not because she lacked belief in her abilities, but rather because she was too sure of her superiority? No. That was truly over the top. That was the wine speaking, not her. She was distorting herself and her benighted ancestors. They were not as bad as she was painting them. Even her dear, departed aunt - she of the buzz saw voice - had done more good than harm in her long, unhappy life.

Maybe it was just fate. Maybe they pulled back from the success they deserved because, in her mother's words, it was not to be. They were an evolutionary failure for reasons they could not understand and their lot was to be dismissed, diminished and destroyed. Fate. That must be it.

And yet.

The thought of fate was a bit too hokey, even after three or four glasses of her full-bodied Italian red. Maybe they were stubborn. Maybe what she was calling fate was only the drive that had pushed them relentlessly forward, in the face of disappointment and failure. Maybe they kept going in the hopes that their two lines would one day culminate in her, or someone like her, who would turn it all around for them by seizing the day and running away with it.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe they had nothing to do with her and she was just using them as an excuse.


She drained her glass and contemplated pouring another. No, she had mooned quite enough. She wagged a metaphorical finger at herself. Time to decide. She would have to tell him the truth. Her biggest chance ever, and she'd have to reject it. There was no other way.

Or was there?


Just this once.

Why not?

Sandra brushed her aunt's dead hand from her arm and reached across the sofa for the telephone. For once, their voices sounded old and weak and far away. She could barely hear them anymore.

That was damn fine wine, she thought, as she waited for her boss to pick up the phone.
Rupert's Comments:

All that red wine seemed to help Sandra make a big decision. Check out the Yale-New Haven Hospital's Web site for a nutritional discussion of red wine's other benefits.

2403 words

Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:41

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