Their eyes were locked on me, reading my every thought, prying at my secrets, peering uninvited into my soul. The light over the table swayed, uncomfortably bright. Beads of cold sweat sprouted along my hairline. I braced myself for the inevitable interrogation…
“How do you like the pork chops, Dumpling?” she asked, with a nonchalance that belied her intrusive stare.
“Delicious, Mom,” I sputtered between cheekfulls of pork and potatoes, hoping that the compliment might end my ordeal.
“So, what happened at school today?” my father pressed while pushing applesauce around his plate.
Wide-eyed and hunched in a self-protective posture at the opposite end of our kitchen table, I muttered the one word that had allowed me to avoid my parents’ attention for so many years: “Nothin’.”
“Well, something, must’ve happened at school today. Here, I’ll help you out. So … you stepped off the bus, and then?” he badgered, mercilessly.
My older brother, Tray, had recently gone off to the Naval Academy, leaving me home alone, with our parents. For so many years, I had flown completely under the radar. But now, my only sibling was gone.
As the first born, Tray had always carried the entire burden of my parents’ expectations for their offspring. I had merely been the unremarkable little sister of The Golden Boy, The Favorite, The Apple of Their Eye. Tray not only fulfilled, but exceeded their hopes — he was a popular top athlete with gifted math and science skills, who went on to become a Navy jet pilot. His obvious superiority left me free to drift contentedly through childhood, bouncing unnoticed between mediocre and above average.
Wearing ratty Converse Chucks, hand-me-down jean cut-offs, and a camp t-shirt, I’d ride my yellow Schwinn through our neighborhood, my Kool-Aid backpack packed with a cheese sandwich, a few Wacky Package collectors cards, and a Thermos of Tang. On rainy days I’d stay in my room, lost in elaborate pretend scenarios, or I’d play my mother’s old 45s on my Fisher Price record player.
As a child, I did not resent Tray for getting all of my parents’ attention. Quite the contrary, I relished my quiet, comfortable, ignored existence, and happily hid in the humongous shadow of the older brother that I, too, idolized.
But then he left home, and suddenly, the gig was up.
It was as if my parents, Durwood and Diane, looked through the unexpected void left by my brother’s absence and noticed, “Oh yeah … Who is that there? Is that the other one … the little dumpy one … what’s her name again? Oh yes, it’s Lisa!”
I was entering the tenth grade, when I suddenly became the subject of my parents undivided attention. Mom was now interested in what I wore, my social behavior, and how I did my hair. “Oh, Dumpling, let me help you give a little height to those bangs,” she would say, licking her thumb.
My Dad, who had no previous interest in my athletic accomplishments, which by the way, included a second place ribbon for the standing broad jump at church camp, started showing up to all of my high school swim meets. My teammates knew this sudden change in attention made me nervous, and would alert me when he appeared in the chlorine-steamed stands, “Head’s up, Lisa — Durwood’s here!”
Night after agonizing night, I was interrogated by my parents at the dinner table, forced to reveal my likes, dislikes, social pursuits, academic achievements, ambitions, disappointments, hopes and dreams. Durwood and Diane took an unprecedented interest in me, having long talks about life, getting me horseback riding lessons, taking photographs of me before dances, and bragging about me to their friends.
It was like I was their kid or something. Weird.
Thirty-five years later, our youngest child, Lilly, is wide-eyed and crouched defensively in her chair at the dinner table, as if we are about to pummel her with dinner rolls. Her sister left for college last month, and Lilly’s instinct is telling her, the gig is up.
But there’s no need for those left behind to afraid. I’ve lived through it myself, and I’m here to tell the tale. It will take some time, but soon, you will get used to being the center of attention.
Those strange people who’ve been ignoring you all these years? Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They are simply your parents, and they are finally beginning to realize that you are pretty darned interesting after all.