“The Siamese Fighting Fish”

by Tina Lampman


“Mom, I’m home,” I said, as I walked in the door, loaded down with Christmas gifts. A chill was in the air and the house was packed with family, including the newly married and the freshly born.  All were moving about quickly, still frozen from the walk from their cars.  The frigid air made some irritable. Others were antsy, wishing they had concealed an emergency bottle of brown liquor in the lining of their jackets to ward off the cold.  Mom looked up from the pot she was stirring, long enough to say, “Oh hi Tina. I have a curling iron in the powder room if you need one.”

The newest member of the family followed me into the bathroom. “She hasn’t seen you in a year, and she criticized your hair the minute you walked in? She knows that you’ve been in the car for nine hours.”

I laughed and said, “I think I can handle this bathroom trip all by myself,” dragging a comb across by tangled mane.

I heard Mom’s melodious voice over the crowd saying, “TEEE-NA, don’t forget to put some lipstick on.”

“Way ahead of you, Mom,” I shouted.

When the newbie started to leave the room, I stopped her. “Wait,” I said, handing her the hair brush.  “Comb your hair, or you’ll be next.” Then, I handed her my lipstick and she used it.  “There, that looks beautiful,” I said to her.

“Now, get in there, and keep your head down.”

With a fearful look in her eyes, she joined the rest of the group.  It’s fun to mess with the family’s new recruits, especially when they invade my bathroom space.

I always knew that our family was unique.  To be clear, as a girl, I believed our family was better than others.  Other kids played freely, screaming and running through the house.  Mom said that we had irreplaceable items that came from Germany after World War II and furniture made of unique wood that was not readily available in The States.  Our house remained quiet and our prized possessions unbroken.  Other kids took crayons to their mother’s walls. To this day, Mom still has the same living room suit.  After fifty years, four children and countless grandchildren, her furniture still has no visible scratches.  Growing up, I visited friends when I needed to expel energy and went home when I got tired.

I was taught that as an Army child, I was held to a higher standard.  As the youngest family member, there were many times when I felt that standard unreachable.  When he came home from Vietnam, Dad must have felt that way about America’s ability to conquer communism.  In the scheme of things, it really didn’t matter what Dad thought, nor did it matter what any of his brats thought.  We were all part of the Freedom Forces.  Mom and her children had to keep the family unit running smoothly.  Soldiers were fighting and dying overseas for America.  It was our job to respect and follow the rules without questioning their validity.

Growing up, my family was a well-oiled machine Mom kept us on a tight schedule and a short leash. My mother told me that we were required to run through the day at high speed to hone efficiency.  She told me later that when the children were running to keep up with her, they didn’t have time to touch and break things.  It was her way of keeping the four of us out of trouble.  I pitied the children that didn’t have a mom that could run a four minute mile in June Cleaver heels.  I always believed that she was hiding a jet-pack under those broomstick skirts of hers. I’ve never seen anyone else move that fast in heels.  If I lagged behind in the store because my legs were too short, I was swept up into the arms of a family member and carried.  Mom and I competed in a mother/daughter three-legged race when I was in elementary school.  I thought I had brought a ringer to the competition.  When we lost, I knew it was my fault.

My mother had to monitor the looks and behavior of her children for her livelihood.  All of us knew that unkempt or unruly children looked bad on a soldier trying to make rank. While we haven’t been physically attached to the military in fifty years, our hearts and minds remain forever tethered to tradition that still enables us to thrive in the midst of all battles, even the daily ones.

Outsiders may think that we look at every moment in life as if it were a struggle. These are the people that take long, restful vacations without a thought given to the outside, enemy world.  Their children don’t understand that disobeying the commander’s orders (a.k.a parents’ orders) can get them killed among the general public that doesn’t care if they live or die. Civilian children eat expensive entrees in restaurants, while the parents have spirited conversations with them about physics or foreign affairs. How could they possibly understand anything about us? Army brats are born and/or trained to win battles, not watch them on TV.  If they get to eat at a restaurant at all, they order from the children’s menu or they split a meal.  And, they are told never to talk during dinner.

Are the children of Service folk harmed because perfection is expected of them? No one knows, and only a few care.  There are opposing academic studies on the inheritability of traumatic stress.  But, we can look at other animals for all of the answers that interest us.  If two male Siamese fighting fish are placed into a tank together, they will never stop fighting for dominance.  The Thai people have made a sport out of these fish battles. Betting on the victor is both ghoulish and lucrative.  The trick is to be the strongest fish in the tank and to understand that newcomers are likely violent.  The fish requires training or breeding or both. No one cares about the emotional status of the fish or its spawn; they just want to make money from the winner.  More importantly, no one blames the fighting fish for their antisocial interaction with one another or wonders if the rice patties of Southeast Asia, where they originated, ruined them.  I was four years old when my father returned from Vietnam.  That area changes the lives of every one and every thing. Some of us are paranoid, and some are aggressive.  That’s all anyone knows.  Everything else is just interesting stories for the journals.

Certainly, maturity tempers us.  These days, Mom and I talk every morning, though I live far away.  The other day, she wanted my advice on winning over the heart of a newborn.  I couldn’t believe she cared about that.  And, I really couldn’t believe she asked me for ideas.

“How many times have you told me not to be so sensitive? Why do you care what the baby is thinking?  It’s a newborn.  It doesn’t have a brain.  And, wasn’t it you that said ‘Kids are to be seen and not heard?’  Take a look at the precious angel and walk away before he starts to cry.  Besides, children eat dirt.  Then, they spread diseases. ”

“Years ago when the neighbor’s dog threatened to bite me, I threw hamburger at it.  Have you thought about throwing meat at the child,” I said.

I told her that if she didn’t like the hamburger idea, I had seen other grandparents feed the younger generation candy.  “Just make sure you leave before the sugar hits his little bloodstream,” I said.  I let her know that the ensuing hyperactivity was a subtle way to repay the parents for being rotten as children.

“You can even call from the road to hear the tiny sugar-filled cherub screaming in the background.  I hear that’s the best part.”

She must have thought I had given her enough sage advice for one day, as she changed the subject.  However, I’m certain she will ask me other questions about children, as they arise.

Although she has softened her attitude towards kids, Mom is still the best person to have in a crisis because she’s as tough as nails.  And, that’s a rare skill.  I was with a woman once at the hospital that cried and screamed at the top of her lungs because she heard a neutral doctor’s report.  Later that day, she asked me why I never seem to break down during difficult moments.  I told her that I was never allowed to do that growing up.  She said that she felt sorry that I had to be raised that way.  I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Things could be worse.” I wanted to say more, but I didn’t want anyone comparing my confusion at being judged to her hysterics.

It was true.  Things could be a great deal worse.  My life turned out better than I anticipated.  I moved into a tiny beach community, a safe hide-a-way on the warm side of America. My Siamese fighting fish and I live where the sky meets the ocean.  Years ago, I gave away my curling iron. And, I only wear lipstick on special occasions.  Both my fish and I are still capable of asserting dominance when it’s needed.  But sometimes, I can enjoy the beauty of nature, not always worrying about the evil that may lurk around the corner.  Like a care-free civilian, I can wander through the sugar white sand that adjoins the sea.  Happiness is still difficult.  But, when I feel anxiety, I can always take a brisk swim in the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  After all, it’s too hot to worry about anything.

Author (left) with her mother (right) (Author photo)
Author (left) with her mother (right)
(Author photo)