All in the Family

All in the Family

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

All in the Family

I met Eileen, my brother’s wife, when I was seven years old. Only she wasn’t his wife then. She was an amazing nineteen-year-old with blond streaks in her hair! I loved her immediately. She was exotic and funny and terrified of my parents when she came over for dinner the first time.

This was back in the days of formal meals with lots of forks lined up. Eileen dropped two peas in her lap, then two more and then another one. She thought nobody saw. I watched her wrap them up in her napkin discreetly. After dinner I told her, “I saw the peas.” I said I wouldn’t tell, though. Thirty-one years have passed, and this is the first time I’ve said anything to anybody. It’s okay—she said I could.

We were talking on the phone the other day, right around her fiftieth birthday. She was trying to describe what fifty felt like. She said that of the women in our family, she didn’t feel like the mature one. Brain-wise, she said, my sisters and I had passed her a long time ago. There were times she felt left out.

For my sisters and me, it was the natural order of things: high school, college, grad school. But Eileen worked while my brother went through medical school. Then she had babies. She chose to be a full-time mother at a time when many women chose careers first. You never saw a person who loved babies so much. You never saw a happier mom.

“And you never knew how I ached,” Eileen said.

No, I didn’t.

She told me about a ring—the college ring she had gotten right before she had dropped out. She wore it for years but decided one day to take it off.

“A woman at the library recognized it and said she had gone to the same school,” Eileen explained. “And so she asked when I graduated. And I said, ‘Well actually I didn’t.’ And she said, ‘Well then why are you wearing that ring?’ And I thought: This woman is right. I am a phony. I am pretending to be someone I am not.”

I never knew this college thing was such a huge deal to her. She used to tease my sisters about “getting to the other side.” By the time I got there, she was joking about being abandoned. I laughed right along with her, never realizing.

Now I do. I’ve been out of school long enough to chase other dreams. I understand what it is to have an unfulfilled promise to yourself. It can seem so tiny to everyone else as to be imperceptible. But so can a grain of sand in your eye.

In lieu of the college ring, Eileen took to wearing her daughter’s high-school ring. “I was so proud of Alyson for graduating high school,” she said.

Alyson is now in college, studying art. Her younger brother John finished college in two and a half years. Joe, the third child, is a star student in high school. Tom, the youngest, is in the eighth grade. Eileen has always paid special attention to Tom’s schooling. For a while there, it seemed as if Eileen and Tom were always doing homework together.

Now she tells me: “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I was everybody else but me. I lived through my husband. I lived through my kids. I wanted to have control of everybody. I wanted them to live my dream.

“And so I was hell-bent that my kids were going to go to college. They were never going to feel inadequate, the way I did. And that was so wrong. I had to get my own life.”

So a year ago, she signed up for two English courses at the college she had left eighteen years before. The first day of class, she put the ring back on. She got books, test dates, assignments. She thought, There is no way I can do this.

Well, she got an A and a B-plus in those courses. She signed up for four courses over the summer. Then the following semester, just last September, she signed up for five courses and committed herself to write her senior thesis on Charles Dickens.

She aced all five classes. She aced her thesis. She is about to graduate, at fifty, this spring. She told me she hasn’t been this happy since she was nineteen, and she said the happiness is only incidentally about the college degree.

She told me about Joe and John cooking dinner for the family while she was off at class. She told me about Alyson cleaning the house so her mom could study. She told me about my brother tutoring her in chemistry. She told me who volunteered to read her thesis: Tom.

It was because of her family, not despite it, that she was able to make it. And this circle of give-and-take had made fifty the greatest age to be.

Jeanne Marie Laskas

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