Family Relations 101


Great! I take this class to meet a few girls and I wind up sitting by my mom.

Family Relations 101

I have just entered room 3021 and plopped my books down, preparing for my Family Relations 101 class. Why, you might wonder, does a guy studying to be a construction engineer want to learn about nonverbal communication with babies and how to deal with a teenager who has an attitude?

The answer is simple. I took this course because I am loaded down with pre-engineering classes. I want a change of pace, something where I don’t have to figure out structural stress coefficients. The fact that the female to male ratio is 7:1 has nothing to do with it.

Well, maybe a little.

The early indications are it is a wise choice. A blonde-haired girl with a trace of freckles across her nose just sat down a row in front of me. She looked around the class, smiled when she saw me, and said, “Hello.”

This is a most excellent sign. I sort of smile back at her and nod, trying to be very cool. I started to say something really original like “How ya’ doin’?” but decide not to rush things.

I am feeling good about this relationship. It is at least 20 seconds old and going well. Why not rush things a bit? What should I do next? Change seats? Ask her what her major is? Tell her she looks like she is from California? I’m feeling slightly euphoric.

But the enchantment vanishes seconds later when a woman in her early 50s briskly walks into the room and sits down beside me.

“I had no idea that we were is this class together,” she says pleasantly.

“Neither did I, Mom.”

I love my mother. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her. But I see my chances of getting to know the blonde-haired girl in the next row slipping through my grasp. Let’s face it. It’s very difficult to display your charm, wit, and intelligence to a woman when your mother—who knows what you’re really like—is only inches away.

“This will be a great experience for us,” Mom says enthusiastically. “Maybe we can study together for tests.”

I glance at the girl and think about what might have been as the professor clears her throat and begins to lecture.

I’m home now, at our dinner table, after working my four-hour shift in the bookstore. Mom has just warmed up a plate of food for me.

“I think we’ll have fun in that class,” she says, scrubbing off a pot in the kitchen sink. “I can’t believe we ended up together. Of course, if you think it’s too awkward to have me in the same class, I could transfer.”

“Oh, no, Mom. I don’t mind at all,” I tell her, hiding the fact that for one more semester my social life probably will be roughly on par with a turnip. “But why family relations? It’s not like you don’t have any experience. Remember us? Your five children?”

Mom stands up straight and sets aside her dish rag. “Well, I’m taking three classes. Geology, because every time I’ve looked out this window in the last 27 years, I’ve seen mountains. I want to know more about those mountains. The humanities class is to help me better appreciate the beauty around me.” She picks up the rag and begins some intense scrubbing on a casserole dish. “And the family relations class—that’s to help me know if I could have done a few things better.”

I know what she is talking about—my younger sister, Jan. A little more than two years ago, when I was on my mission in Peru, Jan left home just before graduating from high school. We don’t really know where she is. A phone call, a postcard, maybe a letter at Christmas, first from Chicago, then somewhere in Florida, then a half-dozen other locations. She just tells us that she is fine, working, and maybe will come back someday. We’ve all lost sleep over her.

I finish my meal and give her a hand with the rest of the dishes before heading to my room to work through some calculations for my building materials class. I hope for the millionth time that Jan is okay somewhere.

I’ve decided not to break things off with the blonde-haired girl from California, at least not yet. In fact, once again I think our relationship is progressing nicely. She did sort of look around in class the other day. I took that as a sure sign she was checking to see if I was there.

Anyway, the big break came when the instructor, Dr. Holgate, took roll out loud. I very casually pretended not to be paying attention, but I was all ears, hanging on each “Here!” as the names were called out.

“Carianne Meacham?”

“Here!”

That’s it! She has a name. I scribble furiously in my notebook. Carianne. A wonderful name. It fits someone used to surfing off Malibu, working on her tan, and playing volleyball on the beach, all important qualities in a prospective wife.

My mother is nudging me. “The teacher’s calling your name!” she whispers hoarsely.

“Here!” I blurt out, standing up. The whole class laughs.

Tonight I am again trying to concentrate on homework. But there’s a huge distraction sitting on the end of my desk.

It is the university phone book.

Inside it, I know, Carianne Meacham’s name will be listed, where she lives, her hometown, her major, and her phone number.

Try this scenario:

“Hello, Carianne. I’m David Williams, the guy you said hello to in family relations class two weeks ago, the ruggedly handsome one who sits next to his mother.” Well, maybe I could get just a few basics about her from one quick peek at the phone book.

I open it and search through the M’s. Voila! Meacham, Carianne L. Sophomore. Nursing major. Lives off campus. But what’s this? She’s from Seattle, Washington, land of perpetual drizzle.

I can adjust. I like rain. I like little green plants growing behind my ears and between my toes. I like rust, honest.

I wonder if Carianne knows what sacrifices I’m making for her.

Family relations class, a debate is raging. Dr. Holgate raised the question. “Is there ever a time when parents are justified in asking their children to leave home?” The arguments churn on. The class consensus seems to be that, yes, there are rare occasions when a child should not be allowed in the home, such as if his or her behavior is damaging the entire family or setting a bad example for younger siblings. Dr. Holgate is at the front of the class, looking slightly entertained. Class is almost over.

“Any other thought?” she asks.

“Yes!” my mom says.

“Go ahead.”

“When you have children, they are yours forever, not just in good times or okay times, but always. You have to love them always, show them that you care always, and be there for them always,” Mom says, her voice slightly quivering.

It is an amazing turn of events. The class bursts into applause. Up front, Dr. Holgate is beaming. The buzzer sounds and class is over. Several students come up to talk with my mom, the new class star. One of them is Carianne who grasps her arm and says, “Ruth, what you said is true.”

While I’m happy for my mom, it’s a little difficult to accept that Carianne is more impressed with my mother than with me.

Not a good day in Family Relations 101. Dr. Holgate announces we need to pair up with someone else to work jointly on our final project. It will be a report on some aspect of family relations. The choice of topics is up to us. Half of our grade will be on our paper, the other half on a 15-minute class presentation by the two-person teams.

“Okay, pair up,” Dr. Holgate urges. “If you can’t find a teammate, I’ll assign you.”

Carianne Meacham stands up and turns toward me. My heart starts to thump. This is it. I knew I was right. All semester long, she’s secretly wanted to get acquainted. I owe Dr. Holgate for this opportunity, I really do.

Carianne smiles. I smile back. I’m already to ask, “How ya’ doin’?” which is my best get-acquainted line. She is only inches away. I hear her voice.

“Ruth, would you like to work together?” she asks my mother!

“Why yes, I’d be tickled to.”

Cruel fate. Aced out by my mom. Again.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look up into the bespectacled face of a man in his late 20s, balding, with a lopsided smile.

“Hey, we’re the only ones left without a partner. Whaddya say? Pete LaFete is my name, and I’ve got some great ideas for this project.”

I can’t find the right words to tell him I didn’t take this class to further my male bonding experience. But I’m so stunned, I nod. Peter LaFete and I are a team.

I am slumping. I am a baseball player who has gone hitless in his last 27 at-bats, a singer who comes down with laryngitis the night of the big concert. I’m struggling with my engineering classes, and Family Relations 101, the class I took for enjoyment is turning into a nightmare. Hey, I’m 22 years old, and I should know more about … about … life.

Yes, life. I should be more on top of it than I am now. I need a triumph. Just a small triumph, a little victory to reinforce that I do have something to look forward to.

I got together with Peter LaFete. We are going to do our research paper on successful dating. Pete is single, six years older than I am, and has just changed his major to family relations although he has 224 credit hours and should have graduated before I left on my mission. I told him since neither of us has much of a track record in dating, we might have a credibility problem.

“No way, pard. I know a lot about dating,” he says confidently.

I have a few theories about why Pete is still single.

Dark, cold, and rainy. Sort of like my life right now. I am in my room, studying. It is almost 11:00 P.M. Mom and I went over each other’s notes in preparation for the final tomorrow in Family Relations 101. Then I came up here to hit the books. Downstairs, everything is quiet. The rain slashes against my window. It’s on nights like these that I most often think of my sister and wonder where she might be.

I hear a commotion on the porch. I get up from my desk, wondering what is going on. There is a loud knock on the door. Mom and Dad are at the bottom of the stairs, fumbling with bathrobes, turning on the entry lights. Dad opens the door a little and peers into the darkness. A figure steps into the light spilling from our home.

It is my sister, soaking wet, looking tired, looking very different than the skinny junior in high school I knew when I left on my mission.

“Can I come in?” she asks, her voice trembling.

“This is your home, Jan,” my dad says softly.

“Mom, Dad, I need to start over.”

“We’ll talk later,” Mom says. My sister throws her arms around Mother, and they both begin to cry.

I think my slump is history.

It is Friday, at the end of the semester. All of the work for family relations and my other classes is done. Mom and Carianne were a brilliant team. Their presentation was terrific.

Pete LaFete and I were less than genius. “I’ve found in my experience,” Peter lectured during our presentation, “that a proper way of saying good night on a fourth or fifth date is to kiss a girl lightly on her forehead. Girls remember it.”

I bet they do, Pete.

Anyway, I’m just getting home and pushing my way through the back door. Something smells great in the kitchen. Mom is at the stove.

“Hello, dear.”

“Hi, Mom. Where’s Jan?”

“In the dining room with your dad. She registered at the community college today. Maybe she’s finally turning the corner. By the way, I invited some company over for dinner tonight. Hope you don’t mind.”

“No big deal, Mom,” I answered, since we often throw an extra plate on the table for guests. I peek into the dining room, and there, with her back toward me, chatting away with my dad and sister, is Carianne Meacham.

My mom smiles serenely.

“I got an A in family relations, remember? And I saw her name in your notebook the other night when we were studying. Now try to say something besides, ‘How ya’ doin’?’ Carianne is an intelligent girl, and I don’t think that will impress her at all.”

And that’s the way I got to know Carianne Meacham.

Sometimes I sit back and like to sort things out. I’ve been thinking about the last months. I think about Mom going back to school at age 53 and showing all of us that learning is something you do all your life. I think about her report card, two A’s and a B. (“Geology wasn’t as intriguing as I was hoping,” Mom explains.) I think about my sister and what my mom had to say about loving always. And I understand better that there are at least two kinds of education. One kind deals with the mind, the other with the heart.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Rick Graham; photography by John Luke