By Kathy Leonard Czepiel
My neighbors’ teenage daughter thinks I am square just because I have never heard of her favorite TV show, The O.C. And, okay, I may have said something about her beautiful, backless prom dress. Something like, “I never could have worn a dress that revealing in 1982.” (We were wearing floral print dresses that looked as if they came off the set of Little House on the Prairie.) She just smiled politely, but I knew what she was thinking.
All right, all right, so I’m square! Big deal. I grew up square; to deny my squareness would be to deny my cultural heritage. In my twenties, I’ll admit, I drove some big, fun circles around my squareness, in my second-hand Nissan Sentra wagon. Now I’m married with two children, and not only am I nouveau-square, but lately I’ve begun to feel Square Pride.
I realize this may be hard to believe, especially for all those who remember the annoying, stupid, or downright humiliating things their own square parents did to them. Like having to wear a snowsuit until you were in fifth grade that went swish-swish-swish when you walked and plastic bread bags in your boots to help them slip on and off more easily.
My parents did that stuff, and more. They have four certifiable ninety-degree angles apiece. My father, for example, sings show tunes in the car, and not just when he’s alone. A favorite game of my brothers and mine in our adolescence was to tell my father the title of a current song—for example, “Our House” by Madness—and let him butcher the lyrics for us. Our house / in the middle of our street became, Our house / in the middle of the road / where cars and trucks will hit it. / Our house is in the street / not the sidewalk, not the lawn. My father also has the squarest occupation in the world. He’s a Protestant minister, which made me hopelessly and irreparably square by association. My mother, a retired elementary reading teacher (note the second-squarest profession), didn’t teach me how to apply makeup because she hardly wears it herself. She sewed matching outfits for us when we were kids. I distinctly remember her wearing a swimming cap with a chin strap and big, floppy rubber flowers glued to it.
My parents, because they were square, never let me go to PG-rated movies, wouldn’t buy me the Grease album (too risqué, and Barry Manilow wasn’t much better, singing about “making love”), wouldn’t indulge my passionate desire for designer jeans because fashion is pretty much meaningless, and made me go to bed halfway through The Waltons because bedtime was bedtime. My parents drive at or below the speed limit, barely know the difference between a cabernet and a chardonnay, never swear in front of us (even though we’re all in our thirties now), and, although they were only in their twenties when the Beatles showed up, were among those who thought they needed haircuts.
My parents have also been married for forty-three years, and every full-blown argument I call recall happening in our house was between us kids and them, never between the two of them. They can hold an intelligent and interesting conversation on a wide range of subjects—politics, religion, history, literature, education. They live in Woodstock, New York, which is about the least square place you can live in this country. They both distinguished themselves in their careers as people whom others came to respect and admire for their intelligence, courage, patience, and selflessness. And they raised three children who look forward to visiting them.
All this is not to say that growing up with square parents was easy. Despite the little annoyances, life was great in elementary school, but throughout junior high and high school I found myself in an often unbearable position. I was mortified by my parents’ squareness, yet, at the same time, appalled by the ridiculous things my classmates did simply because everyone else was doing them—a reaction which, of course, came from having been raised square. So it’s no surprise that going away to college felt like being launched into the beautiful, wide-open sky, where no one knew a thing about me.
The fun began when I landed in a freshman dorm that, in a moment of what must have been administrative insanity, had been plunked down in the middle of the hard-partying fraternity quad. Sophomore year I lived in the Arts House, and from there I set off on the road trip of my twenties, which took me through Europe, New York City, and the undiscovered back streets of my home territory. It may have been a wilder ride for my parents than it was for me. I’m sure they feared I had broken through the guard rail and plunged into the abyss when I moved in with my boyfriend three hundred miles from home and stayed for a year and a half, but I survived that fall to ride a few more hairpin turns, some of them more fun than others.
The proverbial road trip ended with a real one. I married a guy with a ponytail and a pickup truck, and a couple of years later we drove west to spend a few years in Denver and the Rocky Mountains. While there, we became parents ourselves, but squareness didn’t re-enter my home right away. When it did, it came not through my parents two thousand miles away, but through a beloved day care provider and my new job teaching high school. Donna, who cared for our older daughter, insisted: “If you don’t teach her to be respectful now, when she’s sixteen she’ll grab your car keys and take off.” I was teaching sixteen-year-olds for a living, so I heard this loud and clear. I had already taken a position of authority at school, wasting no time becoming The Teacher after my first day, when my sophomore boys stood on their desks and screamed and pounded their chests. Now, apparently, I was going to have to take a position of authority at home, too. I was going to have to become The Parent.
I was probably destined to be a square parent in the end. After all, how many of us, whether we admire our parents or not, have managed to sever all ties and create brand new parenting styles of our own? But I don’t think I could have been a proud square parent without my twenties. I imagine I would have been always craning my neck, wondering whether I might have missed something. My parents and I still disagree on a few of the finer points (snowsuits, bread bags, driving big circles around one’s squareness), but there’s no doubt that we were drawn with the same ruler, though I’d like to think of myself as more of a parallelogram.
Eventually, my husband and I came back East to settle down and raise our children within driving, rather than flying, distance of family. It’s no accident that my husband was behind all this. The longer we are married—eleven years now—the more he reminds me of my father and my brothers. Today we uphold square rules similar to those of my parents. For example: You can’t wear flip-flops (or, as our three-year-old calls them, “thlip-thlops”) out of the house until you’re five years old. Before that age you’re likely to trip all over yourself, and, at any rate, you shouldn’t wear a fashionable item of clothing if you can’t pronounce it. And it’s sneakers only on the playground, or you’ll fall and crack your head open. You can’t go to PG movies at the age of seven even if Hollywood is marketing them to you. And you can’t have a later bedtime because, if you do, you’ll be cranky tomorrow, and anyway, we need a couple of hours to ourselves, thank you. Nail polish? You’re three years old! Oh, all right, but not until you can keep your fingers out of your mouth.
A few years ago, I even found myself objecting to a production of Grease at the high school where I was teaching. Why would you want to immerse those young actresses in a story in which the happy ending is the result of a girl’s allowing her friends to turn her into something she isn’t in order to get the boy she likes, who’s already interested in her for who she really is? That’s supposed to be a triumph? I like “You’re the One that I Want” as much as the next person (I’ve even been known to sing it in the car), but please!
It seems to me that what being square is really about is having your own compass, one that isn’t drawn to popular opinion, so that you don’t become Sandy letting her friends mess with her looks and her love life. What’s hot and what’s not is constantly changing, but if you’re square, you prefer stability. When you do make a change, you’ve usually thought it through carefully. You expect it to stick. And whether you’re conservative or liberal, you’re likely firm in your principles—which is why, once in awhile, you might actually find yourself on the leading edge of social change instead of resisting it. My father, for example, repeatedly preached against the war in Vietnam to a mostly hawkish congregation long before public opinion began to sway in an anti-war direction.
This kind of fortitude plays itself out as steady, predictable parenting, probably the greatest gift my parents gave me. Their seemingly boring constancy gave me the confidence that I had solid ground under my feet so I could eventually go out and see the world without fear that the ground would shift beneath me.
The hardest part of being square is dealing with the fact that many of my current friends and acquaintances have only known me as square. One day not long ago I wore a funky old pair of cowboy boots to work. “I love your boots,” a colleague said to me. It was clear that she was surprised to see them on me. When she heard I’d bought them while living in Manhattan, she was downright shocked, and my heart sank. Do I really seem that square?
Still I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m committed to being the same steady, predictable base for my girls that my parents were for me. It’s not so hard; I never cared much about the whims of the world anyway, and once in a while, when our convictions tell us to, we square parents even get to be risk-takers.
My parents were. In 1982 (year of the prairie prom dress), I was sixteen years old, and they figured it would be the last summer for a big family trip before I abandoned them. They had always wanted to take us cross-country, but money was very tight. Still, carpe diem! My parents spent their entire life savings on a used motor home, and we embarked on a six-week cross-country adventure to places chosen by each member of family.
After we got home, there were several tense weeks. The market of people in our small town looking to buy a used motor home at the end of the summer was tiny. But in the end, a buyer came through, and my parents nearly replenished their savings. I was old enough to realize how close they had cut it, how seriously they took that vacation—and, by, extension, how seriously they valued our time together. It wasn’t their most practical move, but it was one of their greatest.
As adults, my daughters will no doubt remember the cool stuff I wouldn’t let them have and the dumb rules I stood by. But, just as I have, I think they’ll come to understand why. Maybe someday they’ll even find themselves doing some trapezoidal parenting of their own.
Author’s Note: I didn’t ask my parents to read this piece until it was accepted for publication. I sent the essay to them via e-mail, and then I waited with some anxiety. I wasn’t sure whether they’d be offended or flattered or both. They replied the following day. My mother admitted her swimming cap was “pretty silly” and wrote, “My square parents drilled it into my head that no hair was to be left in the pool. Why didn’t I question that it was okay for the men not to wear caps?” This made me wonder how far back through the generations our squareness goes. My father wrote, “What is the difference between cabernet and chardonnay?” He also pointed out that he does speed if he’s late for a meeting, and he’s done eighty-five in the California desert (where that’s the speed limit). Then they started forwarding this essay to other family members. That is such a square thing to do.
Brain, Child (Winter 2006)
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster), named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, Brain Child, and elsewhere. Czepiel teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at her website, http://kathyleonardczepiel.com.
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