“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”
I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?
When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.
My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”
He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”
Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:
- Eating conspicuously healthy food
- Buying brand-name clothing
- Being too intellectual
- Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
- Holding hands during the Our Father
Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.
It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.
I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.
Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)
After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ’em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.
To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.
What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?