EVERY family has it’s own kind of etiquette, a set of distinctive idiosyncrasies that help define it.
I’m not talking here about shared personality traits that come down on the DNA, like the temper of a crazed despot or genetic markers like bunions. I’m talking about foibles around odd issues, quirky familial attitudes.
These family oddities can transfer from one generation to another. My mother had an attitude to illness that was so robust it verged on callous. ‘Take a Panadol’ best describes the approach she took to our ailments. Malingering wasn’t an option because only illnesses with symptoms that were glaring and specific, like measles or chickenpox, counted. My five siblings and I were dispatched to school with all sorts of ailments, whatever the weather.
Disappointingly for my children, I’ve inherited her approach, less sceptical but certainly brisk enough to stop my children from auditioning any symptoms to me which aren’t completely believable at 8am on school mornings.
My friend on the other hand, has a weird custom of being exceptionally kind and attentive when her children audition theirs. I saw this foible close up and in action when my daughter and I went to stay with her recently.
On Thursday night after school, her three teenagers potter about, vigorously engaging in normal family activities like bickering, social networking, and eating twice as much as me. All go to bed, at the peak of physical fitness. 8am on Friday morning, they slope downstairs, drag themselves into the kitchen, clutching heads, backs, throats. They are feeling Really Poorly. “Poorly?” I think. “Is that the same as ill?”
“I’m dizzy,” my daughter’s 13-year-old friend begins, “and my muscles ache.” She shivers dramatically, shuffling over to the toaster, in which she places two pieces of toast. Another sits down with a heavy sigh and helps himself to a sausage. “My legs feel wobbly,” he says. “I’m shaking all over,” holding out a trembling hand and sausage for all to see. The third one spots his opportunity, stops forcefully smacking the bottom of a ketchup bottle and joins the campaign. “I’m not feeling too good either,” he says hoarsely. “My vision is blurred.”
When their mother exclaims, “Oh darlings, you are Poorly! I’ll make you some hot chocolate,” I’m slack-jawed.
They drift off to the sitting room. When their mum comes in to dispense hot water bottles, drinking chocolate and Nurofen, they wilt onto the sofa and thank her weakly in well-rehearsed croaks, before settling down to watch TV, arguing loudly about what channel each wants to watch.
At lunchtime, still Poorly, they hobble into the kitchen, starving. Their mum jumps to it and pasta and pesto are consumed rapaciously. Their mother offers pudding.
“I’m not sure I can manage pudding,” one wheezes but changes his mind when she says it’s cake. The other two shudder at the thought of cake, yet are persuaded to try one slice. Between them, they finish nine.
My friend inclines her head sympathetically and asks if they’re feeling any better. “A bit,” they concede feebly, glancing nervously in my direction and quickly averting their eyes when they see the look in mine.
On Saturday morning, one child has a swimming gala, another, up with the lark and bag packed, is catching a bus for a soccer match and the other is going into town with my daughter. All are entirely symptom-free.
Upstairs, my daughter whispers, “They were totally faking.”
“I know,” I say. “They were eating twice as much as me.”
“But she is so nice, mum. I mean, she believes them and she, like, made them hot water bottles and hot chocolate and everything.” She sounds wistful.
“They’ve always been like that. It’s just a family foible.”
“What do you mean?”
“Families have funny foibles,” I explain. “Every family has their own strange little ways of doing things.”
Now she looks flat-out wistful. She likes my friend’s family foible.
I feel defensive. I need to aim straight. “I’m nice to you when you really are sick,” I say.
“We’re hardly ever sick,” she says, yearning again. “And we’re never Poorly.”
“Quite,” I think.