In honor of “Alice,” Ann B. Davis, who passed away yesterday (June 1, 2014), this is an essay I wrote and then rewrote and have been reading out loud at my reading tour, “Living, Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears.”
Blended Like Brady
Like most people my age, I spent my childhood glued to the TV set, enchanted by my fictional BFFs Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Greg, Peter and Bobby. But more so than the step-siblings who made up TV’s most popular blended family, it was their parents who captivated my imagination. And I would have happily traded in my intact nuclear family to live with the dazzling widowers Carol and Mike, who somehow found each other, married and in 1969 became The Brady Bunch.
My mother hated the show and despised that my brother and sisters and I watched it religiously. We were recent immigrants from South America — a family of six cramped into a tiny apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, trying to navigate through a foreign culture on very limited means. We barely spoke English, but despite the language barrier, my mother somehow understood that the Bradys were a weekly reminder of our utter shortcomings as a family. For me, the show was an introduction to middle class suburbia and American family life.
So I couldn’t help but notice that in stark contrast to the flawless Mr. and Mrs. Brady, as a couple, my parents were often combative, their tempers flaring at the slightest provocation.
The Bradys, on the other hand, discussed their issues rationally and calmly on their orange sofa, never giving each other the silent treatment for weeks and weeks at a time.
My parents were masters at mute cohabitation. And during these protracted episodes, my siblings and I would live on pins and needles while my parents would go about their daily business sporting poker faces – until only out of absolute necessity one of them would have to cave. But no one ever said “I’m sorry” or “You were right” or even “I over-reacted.” We would just go back to our lives pretending the flare-up never happened.
To manage his stress, my father chain-smoked feverishly. My mother coped by alternately popping Valium like tic-tacs and threatening to send our teeth flying across the room in one fell swoop.
Mrs. Brady never even raised her voice. Of course, the stay-at-home mom also had Alice, the saintly housekeeper. Alice was always there to serve. She was a sensible, soft shoulder in a baby blue maid’s uniform. Her daily chores: to gently render advice, offer reassurance and soothing words of wisdom. All from her perch at the kitchen sink.
So despite a houseful of six rowdy children with an endless stream of stupid problems, no one ever worked on Carol’s last nerve.
“Mike … !” she’d sing out angelically whenever a blended-family issue came up. Which was — always. And there Mr. Brady would be, at his drafting table, ready to patiently problem-solve — not an ashtray in sight. The Bradys always smartly figured out what to do. And whatever that was, it always provided the added value of a life lesson for whichever kid was involved in that week’s crisis.
Fast-forwarding several decades, I never dreamed I’d have the chance to channel Mrs. Brady. As a divorced mom bringing up three very lovely girls, combining my family with someone else’s was not on my agenda until I met a man I couldn’t resist, who had two kids of his own. We all moved in together three years later.
My journal entry the first day: “Fasten seat belt.”
It’s fortuitous that I selected a life partner with Mike Brady’s composed and easy going temperament. Glen rarely gets rattled, even with all five kids in the house at once. But shortly after moving in together, I realized I could never live up to Carol’s reputation.
By virtue of being super perky and having hair of gold, Mrs. Brady won the affections of stepsons Greg, Peter and Bobby, who called her “mom,” right off the bat.
I, a plain brunette, am devoid of perk. I’m perkyless.
So I had to gingerly maneuver my way into my stepchildren’s hearts, step-by-step. Sometimes going forward but more often moving backwards around two guarded adolescent kids whose first everythings I had missed by years.
Parenting my own three and becoming suddenly quasi -mom -ish to the others proved to be a precarious balancing act. That’s because Glen and I are parent polar opposites — he’s permissive, lenient, and really fun. I’m not any of those things.
So unlike the Bradys, who swiftly resolved differences within their allotted weekly half hour, we rarely come up with quick-fixes, our problems sometimes festering endlessly.
This was especially so once the kids got older and their school and social lives became less structured. See, as a writer I work from home. And I thrive on planning, organization and scheduling. The kids thrive on leaving trails of dirty dishes, shoes and random electronic devices. On watching TV until all hours of the night. They also enjoy not helping me around the house.
Good thing over the years we’ve all learned to love each other and to get along. And while we merged our two families into one, Glen and I learned two very valuable lessons. Lesson number one: Never, ever discipline each other’s kids. I’m not sure why, but our therapist said so. Lesson Number Two: Get a therapist.
The day we moved in together we put a therapist on retainer. And on speed dial. We’ll trample over everyone and drop everything on our schedules for an emergency session.
Our therapist is so effective I once asked her if she could move in with us. She thought I was joking.
But over time, she’s helped us navigate through this murky family blend by being our cheerleader and advisor. No one has taken up tobacco; no one has threatened dental dislodgings. She puts our issues into perspective, giving us continued hope that this can work, and she offers priceless guidance and support.
Her name is Dr. Dowds.
But I like to call her Alice.