Prelude: You’ll notice there is not a single “sir” uttered by Tina. This is unnatural and goes against all Caldo customs. It’s also a key to understanding why I apprehended the situation the way I did.
It was Sunday, and it had been decided that Liz would fix her family-famous pancakes for lunch. They were famous for one reason: Liz is a thoroughly lazy teenage, and pancakes were the one meal she had once cooked flawlessly. Otherwise what she bakes she burns, because the television is more important than the timer. Her food preparation is no better.
“Liz,” Mrs. Caldo might say, “peel some potatoes for dinner.”
“Elizabeth Caldo,” I say ten minutes later, “don’t let me find you on the couch.” which causes some scrambling from the couch to the kitchen.
“Liz,” Mrs. Caldo calls again, “Where are the potatoes?”
“They’re on the table.” she shouts from the couch.
“Liz, you only peeled three potatoes and there are six of us. What is wrong with you?”
“Well, you didn’t saaaay how many to cut up.”
There was the time that she prepared tater-tot casserole (a simple dish which is a layer of ground beef, a layer of green beans, a layer of cream of mushroom soup, and a top layer of tater-tots baked for 45 minutes) without the cream of mushroom. It is true that the soup is the thinnest layer, but look: dry ground beef and green beans makes for grim chewing. The cream of mushroom is what pulls it altogether. Plus she burned it.
However; there was the time when Mrs. Caldo and I were away, and, in an inexplicable flurry of activity, Liz whipped up a batch of flapjacks for the Caldo minors. Everyone was impressed, and surprised. It was back to this event that we hearkened this past Sunday. “Liz,” we said, “make us your famous pancakes.”
“It’s lunch time, Daddy.”, the young ones called. We washed our hands and went to the table; smelling the bacon and coffee, and being very hungry. In walks Liz from the kitchen with a plate of nine four-inch pancakes for two adults, two might-as-well-be adults, and two kids who love pancakes.
“Elizabeth Caldo, what is wrong with you?” I barked.
“How many of us are there?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m asking the questions. How many of us are there?”
“Then why are you walking in here with nine tiny pancakes?” Her only reply was shellshock.
Tina, the oldest, misunderstood the nature of my challenge to her sister, and she flounced up from the table and–in her best angry martyr voice–said, “Phuuuuh! I’ll make some more!”
Mrs. Caldo expressed her exasperation. “No, Tina, sit down.”
Things are getting out of control pretty fast now, as far as I’m concerned, and the two alpha females are getting worked up.
“Christina! Sit down!”, I said. “Now, let’s say prayers!” My thinking was that if we could just get this lunch back on track we could lead Liz to sort out what she did wrong, but Tina really wanted my attention.
“Fine”, she hissed, and plopped back down in her chair. She tried to burn me with a pair of eyes that she had borrowed from her schoolmates; presumably it works on their parents. It was a stupid plan on Tina’s part.
“So, Liz, why am I upset with you?” As I asked this, someone tried to pass Tina the plate of shortcakes. With a haughty air she said, “No thank you!”, and sat with her arms folded, still trying to let me know she was REALLY angry at me. I had been attempting to let her get over herself, but the disgusted “No thank you!” drew my obligation.
“You are dismissed.”
“Fine.”, she said, and went into her room. I ate my one pancake, went to her room, opened the door, and said, “Do not touch my food until you can tell me what you did wrong, and apologize for it.”
“Fine.” It was about one o’clock.
Dinner was ready at six o’clock. In the interim Tina had stayed holed-up in her room, and called and cried and complained; to whom I had no idea, but there were several. Everyone else came to the table when dinner was called. I saw that her place had not been set. I asked Liz, “Where is Tina’s plate?”
“I thought she wasn’t eating.”
What, I wondered, have I done to deserve such faithless children?
“The rest of you sit down, say prayers, and eat.”, and they did, while I went to smoke a cigarette. Afterwards I went to our room and mused on what to do. All I knew for sure was that I could not eat until Tina did, and Tina could not eat until she repented. (Of course it was Mexican food night, too. Balderdash.) While I was thinking on these things, I heard Tina talking on her phone again–the iPhone I pay for (The iRony. Children can only rebel using what the Father provides.)–and she said something about being ready to go. Just then the house phone rang, and I knew who she’d been talking to.
We have a rule that we do not answer the phone during dinner, and despite the warfare Mrs. Caldo kept calm and carried on. It went to voicemail as I went into Tina and Liz’s room. Tina was sitting on her bed, glaring into her Bible. (My wonderful firstborn; stubborn as sin, but after my own heart.)
“Who was that?” It’s a good idea to start confrontations with questions to which you already know the answer.
“Grandma.” she blazed. Stoking the fires of self-righteousness for five hours will have that effect; Bible or no. Another chip off the old block.
“Do you think you’re leaving?” I knew this answer too.
“Daddy, I don’t want to live here anymore! You’re an emotional bully!” More school talk.
“No, you have a stiff-neck, and would rather be angry than admit you were wrong.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Yes, you did. If you really don’t know, and if you had any sense, you’d have talked to your mother.”
“No, this is between you and me.”
Now, that stoked my anger. I stood from my repose against the door frame, stepped into the center of the room, and drew myself up to my own airy heights.
“Are we equals? Do you think to confront me man to man, CHILD?”
I want to stop here for a moment to make clear, dear readers, that I was not confronting just my daughter, but Legion; who she has contracted through school, movies, advertisements, and the rest of the propaganda machine that rules in America.
My phone rang. It was Mrs. Caldo’s father. I answered it in front of Tina.
“Hey, listen: what’s going on over there? Tina says you’re not letting her eat.” I could hear the wind blowing by car windows.
“Tina can eat any time she wants. All she has to do is apologize.”
“You’re starving her?”, he asked incredulously, and ignorantly.
I answered with silence. Once, when I was younger, I had called him out in the front yard to whip his ass…and would have. He had the good sense to stay indoors. The neighbors still laugh about it every once in awhile, but it’s a mark of shame on my record. For my penance, whenever I conflict with him, I keep my mouth shut.
He tired of the quiet, and asked, “Well, look, is that all?”
“All right. She sure is upset.”
“All right then. Goodbye.”
I said nothing and hung up. To Tina I said, “That was your grandparents. They’re not coming.” Her face fell through the floor.
“Tina, do you know the story of Cain and Abel?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m not mad at Liz. You’re the one who’s being pissed off.” That was a bit of passive-aggressive daring on Tina’s part. “Pissed off” is a verboten phrase in the house…unless I say it, which is…uncommon. (Probably not uncommon enough.) It was an attempt to reframe the confrontation from one of her challenging my authority and her need of repentance, to one of general disagreement, i.e., “we just don’t get along”. Any woman can tell you there’s no need to fix a problem of “not getting along”. It told me that now she’s trying to fight to a stalemate. It also confirmed that she’d lost her damn mind in her inner heat. I ignored the rhetorical skirmish to win the battle.
I motioned to her Bible. “Go to Genesis 4, and start reading. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Flustered by the sudden turn to the Bible (That was supposed to be her personal source of justification, and she could feel that I was about to flip the sword out of her hand.)
4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
“Sounds like you, doesn’t it?”, I asked.
“Well, sort of.”
She went on:
6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
“This is the path you’re on, Tina. Your sin, anger, is crouching at the door, and it will eat you up if you do not rule over it.” She started to cry.
“But I don’t know what I did wrong!”
“You got an attitude while I was correcting your sister. Then you made a big show of my rejection of your selfish offer to fix the problem..”
“I wasn’t being sel-”
“Yes, you were. You got all melodramatic, acting like a martyr. Don’t you think I could have ordered your sister to make more pancakes? I wanted her to figure out that her laziness and inattention to detail was what caused the problem; not the pancakes. You interfered with that, and in your ignorance and arrogance you derailed the whole process of her learning. On top of that, you got an attitude, and made a big show of defiance by refusing food.”
By this point, she was truly sobbing.
“Tina, you get so wrapped up in your own feelings that you don’t know what you’re doing…like saying ‘pissed off’.” She looked scared at my mention of her words, but I just continued. “This is why I’m always on your ass about keeping your head, and not getting corrupted by the self-esteem crap they feed you at school. Now you’ve gotten you’re grandparents involved, and are trying to move out. You realize that is a one way trip, don’t you?” My use of “ass” let her know that I would not hold her words against her without officially approving of what she said.
She grabbed me in a hug and said, “I’m sorry, Daddy. I don’t know why I keep doing this.”
“I forgive you.”
“I don’t know why I don’t learn.”
“Oh you’re learning. This is what learning feels like.”
We hugged for awhile, and she asked me, “How do you always know the right verses to read? It’s like magic.”
“By doing what you were doing when I came in. You read it, and you store it up for later use. Now go eat your dinner. When you’re done with that, call your grandparents and apologize; for all our sakes.”
“Will you eat with me?”