South Brooklyn Post has a new columnist. Meet Renee Dale, a Cobble Hill mom, who will be writing about life, culture and parenting in our sunny corner of brownstone Brooklyn.
Look for her column every Thursday at noon.
For her introductory piece, Dale describes how her modern family found respite in a dated – or timeless? – 70s sitcom.
Brady Bunch Brooklyn
By Renee Dale
The boys were mouth breathing. The girls were transfixed too, but in a slightly less slack-jawed way. My boyfriend and I have four children between us — a boy and a girl each. The kids were draped across the furniture, the way kids sit at odd angles, observing from the periphery of their vision. There was an occasional finger to a nose (offensive but mercifully brief), an occasional snack request, an occasional burst of laughter punctuating the stupor. But otherwise, they couldn’t be disturbed. Four root vegetables plopped in our living room. This was The Answer.
Turned out, Marcia needed braces. The eldest Brady girl had a date to the dance. Everything was set. But then, cruelly, things went terribly wrong. Until they were set right again. Things were always set right with the Bradys.
Immediately, our children were hooked on the series, and so devoted to the unfolding narrative that we could hardly believe it.
The six of us live together in a house too small to contain the energy and spasmodic flights of the boys, ages 8 and 9, and too awkward to ever organize in a way that feels lasting. The girls, both 6, rarely make a troubling peep, and, at the risk of peddling gender bias, are nearly perfect people. Even if the perfection is fleeting, for this moment, they choose their own clothes and happily bathe when asked, rather than rant and flee as the boys do, a scene from Silkwood unfolding nightly in our one utilitarian shower.
It is, from time to time, a madhouse. A booby hatch of noise and need, a spirited home. I shuffle around behind them on weekends, picking up toys, socks, weird bits of paper, tissues, books. Like a feedbag attached to a horse, I provide for them and collect the deposits they drop. I make piles. I sort things in bins. Bins = false sense of hope, but loss of faith in bins leads to enervating trips to Ikea for different bins, and those trips lead to tiny deaths of the soul. So we strive for systems, methods to reign in the chaos and the crumbs that collect around chair legs and edges of rugs. Some of the crumbs are HUGE, not really like crumbs at all, but bites of food that fell out. What is this here, a fossilized Yogurt Burst Cheerio? Look how small and shriveled it is! I chisel it off the tile with a credit card.
There are ways to contain the four of them, make them sit still. Sometimes we need them corralled so we can cook meals (for them), make plans for what’s next on the agenda (always for them); have sex with each other (for us). There are books, infinite art projects, movies, sweets, bribes. The boys, of course, would say there is the Wii. I loathe the Wii for what it does to the eight-year-old male nervous system, the cognitive hangover it leaves in its wake, and I obstruct its use whenever possible. My son thinks I am punitively “olden-times” and that I’m “missing the true point of living.” My boyfriend’s son, a steadfast Wii evangelist, finds the injustice of my position remarkable. He’s genial about it, but appraises me the way one would a butter-churner or a blacksmith in a diorama. “You’ll thank me someday.” I posit/plead. “You’ll remember this limitation as not only quaint, but the very thing that endeared you to me, nourished the coils of your still-forming boy-brain!” They narrow their eyes. They shake their heads and look at each other, enjoying total agreement on my deficiencies as an overall member of society.
Beginning last spring, my preoccupation had become: Was this really happening to our family? Tech negotiations with two infuriatingly willful boys, both blossoming in reasoning and flatulence capability? This was the debate everyone was having with their kids, but I expected exemption from it as a result of my analog vibe. “Attention, small despotic men: Don’t you see the landline on the credenza? With an outgoing voicemail message in Computer Spanish because I don’t know how to change it?” I’m afraid of ear buds (tinnitus), touch screens (digit malignancies), and lots of other things that will lead to our final withering. Why did I feel so impaired in making them See Things My Way? The answer to these questions can be found somewhere in the realm containing their belch-offs and recently adopted habit of calling breasts “milkers.” But recognizing that wide valley between perspectives didn’t help. Didn’t they know I fancied us a more interesting family than this? No, they didn’t. And we weren’t.
If I couldn’t fix them, I needed to fix this.
Conjuring what held my attention as a kid, and factoring in the way my life had transformed (wrenching divorce/wild new love/two additional children), especially the unexpected way my kids’ lives had gone, somehow took me to the Brady Bunch bulls-eye. I felt a flash of sympathy for my younger self, oblivious to how my adulthood would mirror the stitched together Bradys, but relief in the same fact. A boxed set of salvation arrived on our doorstep within the week, and just like that, the Bradys fixed it. Mike and Carol fixed it. Greg and Marcia and Jan and Peter and Bobby and Cindy fixed it. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, Alice fixed it. Alice fixed EVERYTHING. Alice, who lived behind the oven and looked amazingly like young Sean Penn in a dress, had god damn fixed it. That house of theirs fixed it. God, that house. Every carpeted nook is tucked away inside me. The double front doors, the sunny patio and turfed backyard. The Jack-and-Jill bathroom! How I longed for one of those as a kid—so civilized, but suspenseful. Do you lock both sides every time? Maybe not, maybe you take a risk! Maybe every trip to the toilet is an adventure. I’d been captivated for so many hours, collecting images from the wonderful, shagadelic Currier & Ives domesticity of the Bradys. The crew. That somehow formed a family.
I recall pricks of sadness during the years I first watched the show, pre-grownup waves of despair. There were hard lumps of anger to swallow about my parents’ divorce. My family had changed permanently, and I became more of who I’d ultimately be. More complicated, more sensitive, more alive to the things that could go wrong in life. And watching those unbroken strings of episodes, seeing all those scenes of camaraderie play out, was a comfort. I’m reminded of my private aspirations as a kid when our girls now announce three times per episode, “I’m Marcia.” “No, I’m her.” And then, usually, “Okay, you’re her this time, and I can be Jan. But next time we switch.” Their crushes alternate between the brothers from episode to episode, based on pubescent markers that attract or repel them—cracking voices, haircuts, braces. They get confused and say unsettling things like, “I wish Bobby was my brother. I want to marry him.” They choose based on wit, too. Whichever boy is funniest often wins their hearts, which makes me proud. The boys wouldn’t dream of revealing which sister they prefer, but their faces can only be described as blissfully locked in. Not unlike how they look while playing that dreadful Wii, but somehow newly innocent.
We own the entire series (the need to go whole hog became apparent as they were blowing through episodes like Breaking Bad junkies), which is packaged in a lime green, shag-carpeted treasury box. The written synopses thrill them with anticipation. They cannot wait to watch the Hawaiian tiki-episode. “There’s a hairy tarantula,” I mention, and they squeal with excitement. They wish, like me, that Alice lived behind our oven. We would let Sam-the-Butcher sleep over. Obviously. We like Alice that much.
They ask questions about how Mike and Carol met. We don’t know. They ask about the previous marriages that produced the three girls and three boys. Mike’s first wife, it appears, is dead. Carol’s past remains a mystery. Deadbeat Dad? Long trip? Carol isn’t telling.
It’s easy to remember the keen aspiration the show produced in me. Give it to me, I used to think. I loved that the family was untraditionally formed. There were hints that tough times had indeed happened, but that those elements were before, off-screen, and that now, here they all were—happy, safe, the Real Thing. They became. In my mind, I liked that there could be a Before that slowly receded and left nothing but an After. I see our children experiencing that when they watch. Only once or twice have any of them mentioned the show being from a different era. I watch the four of them squeezed onto the chaise of our couch, legs intertwined, under a too-small blanket, letting these reflections of their family wash over them from an ancient piece of mid-century fiction. In this narrative dotted with casual references to tranquilizers, going steady, comically wide collars, and eight people to a station wagon with no seat belts (nine, counting Alice riding in the way-back with Tiger the dog, a probable labor law violation), I observe our kids plucking out the pieces that are teeming with meaning for them. The humor, the sibling rivalry and loyalty, the desire to model that safe domestic tableau. Everything can be just fine. Everything will be fine. I don’t know if it’s the story of the Bradys, or the story I tell myself. But it’s a nice one.
I know why they love it, and it’s for all the same reasons I did 30 years ago. If I wasn’t worried about interrupting their reverie, breaking the spell of unanimous contentment, I would say to them, See? We have many befores in this family. Things have happened to us, some of it bad, some stories that are not so shiny as this one. But look at us here in our crowded, disorganized house, two boys and two girls and a lady and a fellow, all of us battle-scarred and stitched up, but wildly in love. Here we are, too. Becoming.
Renee Dale is a writer living in (where else?) Brooklyn. She and her fiance and their four kids live in a narrow, tilting “house” in Cobble Hill. Or is it Carroll Gardens? When Renee isn’t writing, she’s engaged in various museum and natural history pursuits and can often be found lurking the Hall of African Mammals. In this column, she will bring her anthropological talents to bear, covering everything from parenting to local news to whatever else bursts forth in our Brooklyn life and times.
She tweets @ReneeMDale
Visit Renee’s website: reneedale.com,