A Universe of One

When my mother was a young child, she made up a rule to guide her consumption of ice cream, which was a favorite treat. Her ice cream rule was that on even-numbered days she could have ice cream only served on a cone; odd-numbered days were strictly ice-cream-in-a-dish days. One summer Saturday a family friend offered to buy her an ice cream cone at a stand in the park. Mother was heartsick at being forced to turn it down. It was an odd-numbered day. A dish day. And to my mother, one of her private rules must trump even the joy of a spontaneous ice cream cone.

Mother reluctantly let go of the ice cream rule soon after that day in the park; she had not anticipated that a rule meant to relieve the stress of choosing could ever cause self-sacrifice. This one failure did not cool her ardor for creating new commandments, however. She has always relied on an inviolate and broad-ranging charter of unique rules to manage the unpredictable world and diminish the pressures of problem-solving.

Although the ice cream rule was retired, my mother maintains a full catalog of unassailable food dictates, such as her statute for hard-boiling eggs. According to Mother Rules, eggs must be boiled for an hour to avoid the digestive peril of an undercooked egg. This degree of overcooking produces, well, a super firm (let’s call it “chewy”) egg white and a dry, perfectly intact yolk with a rich khaki-green coating.

Until we were old enough to read cookbooks and my sister Anne discovered that eggs shouldn’t be boiled for more than ten minutes, I believed that the green layer on the yolk was how hard-boiled eggs were naturally supposed to look.

When Anne informed Mother that she was boiling eggs at least six times longer than necessary, Mother refused to incorporate this information. No matter how often we reminded her of the printed facts, she was steadfastly hostile to all efforts to change her method or to look at the cookbook instructions on egg boiling. Instead, to protect herself and her rule from jeopardy, she ignored everyone else and continued to boil eggs for a solid hour.

Rules vs. Facts

Many of Mother’s rules revolve around managing her myriad fears and calming her abundant stress. Even when her children present evidence that a particular fear is completely baseless, she can’t let go of the fear or modify the related rule – because other people’s facts don’t dispel fear; only her carefully constructed rules have the power to fend off a threat. Our facts are just more noise.

The first time we present data that undercuts one of her rules, our mother laughs nervously and dismisses our comments. If we point out a second time the dissonance between any of her rules and reality, she is disconcerted and defensive. Should we heedlessly repeat the facts that undermine her rule a third time, she is likely to get angry. Rules cannot change without destabilizing her universe of one.

Eventually we learned not to try to change her rules or put too much emphasis on countervailing facts. And throughout our childhoods, in the interest of maintaining faith in her, we continuously lowered our assumptions of what we could expect from her.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

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