I was in Singapore—as you must know by now, if you are at all a faithful reader—and on one of many bus rides with Angela. That’s how we got most everywhere, Angela and I: on the bus. In order to own a car in Singapore, you just first purchase a license to own the car, as cars are limited due to the size of the island. Then you may purchase the car, which you may only own for as long as the license permits. In effect, most residents use public transportation, the most convenient of which is buses. (They also have a subway system, but the island is so small, it only has two lines!)
In any case, we were on the bus. Most likely, we were discussing some comparative topic such as our families or our parents or rules we had growing up, but really, we could have been discussing mostly anything; the mind works in mysterious ways. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I remembered Family Meetings.
Family Meetings were scheduled events that my immediate family held on the first Saturday of every month while I was growing up. Gradually, the regularity of these meetings grew to be less and less, but the purpose and format of the meetings remained the same. The four of us—my mother, father, sister, and I—would sit down around our kitchen table. One of us was deemed the Holder of the Gavel and would commence the meeting by striking a red plastic hammer on the table with stern authoritativeness. Then, the Scribe—another family member; initially my mother, whose handwriting was the nicest, until I learned to write well enough and appointed myself in her place—would read through Old Business meeting notes from the last meeting. If there was any outstanding business to be taken care of, that is what we discussed first. If not, standard procedure was to move on to New Business.
New Business rarely varied from month-to-month and was usually most focused upon the negotiation/re-delegation of household chores. In return for a weekly allowance that vaguely corresponded with our age (I believe I received about two dollars by the time I was twelve, whereas my sister at that time—three-and-a-half years my junior—was still receiving a dollar twenty-five), my sister and I shared several daily and weekly household tasks. These included setting and clearing the table, vacuuming the first floor, and collecting the household trash. Because the latter two tasks were weekly and the former were daily, we further split the setting of the table into parts: silverware, plates, napkins, drinks, and condiments. We would split these as well, since each of us considered certain tasks least desirable and would barter to avoid them. Unfortunately, of course, we both considered getting the drinks the very least desirable task. This was because taking drink orders meant hunting down every member of the family, wherever they were in the house, and then knowing what beverages were available (because they would inevitably ask), and then remembering to offer ice or not (because sometimes Dad wanted ice, sometimes he didn’t; Mom almost never did). The other least desirable task was setting out condiments, and this was because no matter how hard you tried, you inevitably forgot something someone wanted and would have to get up in the middle of the meal and get it.
Alternatively, I hated clearing the table, which my sister didn’t seem to mind, so usually if I was willing to take at least one of the Least Desirable Tasks and most of the others, we could strike a bargain. The weekly chores were a bit more difficult to negotiate, as neither of us wanted to use up one extra minute of our weekend dragging the vacuum cleaner up from the basement and winding/unwinding the forever-long cord. Therefore, we alternated: one month I would take out the garbage every week and Amy would vacuum. The next month, Amy would take out the garbage and I would vacuum.
This chore alternation was dutifully recorded in our trusty Family Meeting ledger—a hard black binder filled with sheets of loose leaf paper. Additionally, when the table-setting tasks had been determined, those were also set down in writing.
Aside from chores, we didn’t often have other New Business to discuss, except in the summers. Then, we would usually also determine the specifics of our Yard Sale (who was selling what, when we would gather and price our things, the date/time of the sale, etc.), who was responsible for finding a cat-sitter for Twinkie (my cat and, therefore, almost always my responsibility) when we went on vacation, and any other concerns we, as family members, might want to raise with the rest of the family.
At the end, the Scribe would conclude by recording business left “Open” for the next meeting, if necessary. My mother then usually chose a closing song for us to sing, and the Holder of the Gavel would finally conclude our meeting with an authoritative rapping of the hollow red tool. The gavel and binder would then be stored away on one of our kitchen shelves until next month’s meeting.
Remembering these meetings makes me wonder about my childhood, but moreover, it makes me wonder where my parents came up with the idea. I would almost guarantee that no other family held monthly Family Meetings, and if they did, certainly not to the formal extent that my family did, with rigorous notes and a proper gavel-pounding, no less. Did my mother read this idea in a parenting book somewhere? Or was my father somehow creative enough to teach his children cooperation and corporate structure together by instituting this practice?
And finally, if this benign memory was lost to me for so long, what other childhood memories might I be able to coax out of the catacombs of my brain?