I’m the third in a crowd of five siblings. Not only am I the middle child, but I’m also the middle daughter. Double whammy.
This situation provides a lot of ammunition for the older, bossier extroverts and for the spoiled babies who came later. Imagine my four grown (old) siblings, thumbs in ears, wagging their fingers and sticking out their tongues: Nanny Nanny Do Do. Mom likes us better.
Even the experts have a name for it: middle child syndrome. We suffer low-self esteem and a pervading sense of emptiness. Coupled with the pummeling we take from our more favored siblings, it’s no wonder we’re depressed. Boohoo.
When I am feeling particularly scarred, I think back to the good times:
I am four. I am with my paternal grandfather, Popo. Mornings in his sunny kitchen, we drink coffee, mine laced with milk; he adorns me with plastic jewelry he buys off the revolving stand in Chas Ball’s grocery store; we play cards. He laughs hard, his body shaking, when we watch Archie Bunker together on the couch.
One afternoon when it’s still appropriate to take your children to the neighborhood joint, I clutch Popo’s hand and toddle into that bastion of Croation immigrants on Central Avenue, Frank’s Bar. He props me on a stool at a pinball machine, a root beer in a tiny mug within reach. I feed quarters to the game and operate one flipper while my brother runs the other. I feel like a big girl; I feel special.
Later, when I am a big girl, I ride shotgun with Dad in his 1969 Chevy convertible. The white leather sticks to my thighs and the wind flips hair into my mouth and eyes. With his first two fingers, Dad spins the steering wheel into a turn; his other hand cradles a Budweiser can against his leg. He smiles and winks. I feel happy.
Then my Popo dies. If I don’t see him there, in his casket, it may not be true. My elder sister pushes me into the receiving room at the funeral home; I feel alone and empty.
At the reception after the funeral, Dad drinks vodka. When it’s time to go home, Mom whispers, “Go with your dad.” Good idea. Send the disposable one home with the drunken father.
He drives and we weep. When we pass the funeral home, he pulls to the curb and cries, his body shaking. “Lockanoch, Popo–Goodnight” he says driving into the night.
Flash forward. It’s Dad’s birthday, but we talk about me. We talk about the house I am buying, about finances and the repairs I will make. I prattle on about paint colors and tile. He sounds good. His voice is strong. He is cheerful. We are happy.
Three days later, he’s dead.
Only now do I realize: My mother sent me with our despondent and drunken father that day because I am the middle child—the one whose personality would best match his and console him. I am that favored child.
As time dissolves to memory, this is my wish for you: May your children be festooned in plastic jewels; may you ride shotgun in a convertible on a sunny day. May someone care enough to twist you gently into a half nelson to whisper in your ear without malice, “Mom (Dad) likes you best.” May you always feel like that favorite child.
Most of all, I pray you often hear the last words my father said to me that idyllic spring afternoon as we ended our call:
“I love you, Pumpkin.”