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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fighting Words

"You're just like Vovó."

Four simple words that could bring any family argument to a swift halt. It meant more than just being stubborn or crabby. You were fighting on purpose, keeping the argument going on long after it should have ended, just to win. It was a skill Vovó Flora had perfected, so well that if she were bored and looking for attention she would start a fight over anything. You could see it coming, see her complain or toss out a mild insult, waiting to hook someone and draw them in. She was terrific at fighting. She seemed to enjoy it just for sport. When she was fighting, she was in control.

In my family I was most often the target of those four little words. I did not want to be like Vovó. And yet I can't deny how quick I am to argue, how comfortable I am when a conversation turns heated. I'm not like that with most people, not with friends or coworkers. But when it comes to family I find myself tapping into anger as a tactic. I don't do it consciously. It's certainly not productive. It is familiar, and too often it works. Being enraged means holding the floor. I aspire to better methods of expression, but I can see the appeal of dominating through anger.

For a matriarch like Vovó Flora, fighting is simply how she managed her family. It's the old way, a tough strict mom who kept you in line with a yell, and the occasional smack. As she aged her world grew smaller. She retired and spent her days at home. She drove less, then not at all. Her children were gone, busy with families of their own. The only way she knew to control what little she had left was through anger. Though I wonder if it was about more than just control. Ours is not a family who talks about our feelings. Through her fighting she was able to see how much her children remained devoted to her. Words cannot wound someone who doesn't care, but if she could hurt than she knew she was loved. It's a broken way, but it was how she grounded herself in the world.

This softened some as she drifted into extreme old age. She still picked fights, still tossed out casual insults at family dinners, like the Easter when she was introduced to the fiance of a family friend. She took one look at him and said, loudly, "Why would you marry this fat bald old man?" Ah, Vovó. But other times, when conversations swirled all around her and very much without her, she would suddenly start signing. Her hoarse voice would loudly belt out a folk song, clapping in time. She wanted attention, no doubt, but she this wasn't the scheming of a woman used to getting her way. She was a child again, signing the songs of her youth, looking for attention, for love. We all want to feel loved. And somehow we're reluctant to express it. Too fearful of rejection. Too afraid to give up control to another. When Vovó Flora sang, we listened and smiled. And she felt loved.


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