Turned out, Marcia needed braces. The eldest Brady girl had a date to the dance. Everything was set. But then, cruelly, things went terribly wrong. Until they were set right again. Things were always set right with the Bradys. Immediately, our kids were hooked on the series, and so devoted to the unfolding narrative that we could hardly believe it. The six of us live together in a “house” too small to contain the energy and spasmodic flights of the boys, now ages 9 and 10, and too awkward to ever organize in a way that feels lasting. The girls, both 8, rarely make a troubling peep, and at the risk of peddling gender bias, are perfect people. Even if the perfection is fleeting, for this moment, they are rational and generous and fair. They choose their own clothes and happily bathe when asked, rather than rant and flee as the boys do, a scene from Silkwood unfolding nightly in our one utilitarian shower.
It is, from time to time, a madhouse. A booby hatch of noise and need. A spirited home. I shuffle around behind them, picking up toys, socks, weird bits of twisted paper, tissues, books. Like a feedbag attached to a horse, I provide for them and collect the deposits they drop. I make piles. I sort things in bins. Bins = False Sense of Hope, but loss of faith in bins leads to enervating trips to Ikea for different bins, and those trips lead to tiny deaths of the soul. So we strive for systems, methods to reign in the chaos and the crumbs that collect around chair legs and edges of rugs. Some of the crumbs are HUGE, not really like crumbs at all, but bites of food that fell out of a mouth. What is this here, a fossilized Yogurt Burst Cheerio? Look how small and shriveled it is! I chisel it off the tile with a credit card.
There are ways to contain the four of them, make them sit still. Sometimes we need them corralled so we can assemble 20 distinct snacks per day and cook proper meals (for them); make plans for what’s next on the agenda (always for them); have some sex with each other (for us). There are books, infinite art projects, sports, a pottery wheel, a basketball hoop, movies, sweets, bribes. The boys, of course, would say there is The Wii to occupy them. I loathe Wii and Xbox for what they do to the 10-year-old male nervous system, the cognitive hangover they leave in their wake, and I obstruct their use whenever possible. My son thinks I am punitively “olden-times” and that I’m “missing the true point of living.” My husband’s son, a steadfast video game evangelist, finds the injustice of my position remarkable. He’s genial about it, but appraises me the way one would a butter-churner or a blacksmith in a diorama. You’ll thank me someday, I posit/plead. You’ll remember this limitation as not only quaint, but one of the things that endeared you to me and nourished the coils of your still-forming boy-brain. They narrow their eyes. They shake their heads and look at each other, enjoying total agreement on my deficiencies as a member of modern society.
My preoccupation screamed: Was this really happening to our family? Device negotiations with two infuriatingly willful boys, both blossoming in reasoning and flatulence capabilities? This was the debate everyone was having with their kids, but I expected some sort of exemption from it as a result of my analog vibe. “Hello, small despotic men: Do you see our landline on the credenza? With an outgoing voicemail message in Computer Spanish because I don’t know how to change it?” I’m afraid of ear buds (tinnitus), wary of touch screens (digit malignancies), and lots of other things that will lead to our final withering. Why did I feel so impaired in making them See Things My Way? The answer can be located in the realm containing their compulsion for belch-offs and recent habit of calling breasts “milkers.” But recognizing the wide valley between perspectives didn’t help. Didn’t they know I fancied us a more interesting family than this? No, they didn’t. And we weren’t.
Conjuring what held my attention as a kid, and factoring in the way my life had transformed (wrenching divorce/wild new love/four children to care for), especially the unexpected way my kids’ lives had gone, led me to the Brady Bunch. I felt a flash of sympathy for my younger self, oblivious to how my adulthood would mirror the stitched-together Bradys, but relief in the same fact. A boxed set of salvation arrived on our doorstep within the week, and just like that, the pop culture bulls-eye that would equally captivate the four of them was hit. The Bradys fixed it. Mike and Carol fixed it. Greg and Marcia and Jan and Peter and Bobby and Cindy fixed it. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, Alice fucking fixed it. Alice fixed EVERYTHING. Alice, who lived behind the oven and looked staggeringly like young Sean Penn in a dress, had goddamn fixed it. That house of theirs fixed it. Jesus, that house. Every carpeted nook is tucked away inside me. The double front doors, the sunny patio and turfed backyard. The Jack-and-Jill bathroom! How I longed for one of those as a kid—civilized, but suspenseful. Do you lock both sides every time? Maybe not, maybe you take a risk! Maybe every trip to the toilet is an adventure. I was captivated for endless hours, collecting images from the wonderful, shagadelic Currier & Ives domesticity of the Bradys. The crew. That somehow formed a family.
© Hulton Archive/Getty
I recall pricks of sadness during the years I first watched the show, pre-grownup waves of despair. There were hard lumps of anger to swallow about my parents’ divorce. My family had changed permanently, and I became more like who I’d ultimately be. More complicated, more sensitive, more alive to the things that could go wrong in life. And watching those unbroken strings of episodes, seeing all those scenes of camaraderie play out was a comfort. I’m reminded of my old private aspirations when our daughters announce three times per episode, “I’m Marcia.” “No, I’m her.” And then, “Okay, you’re her this time, and I can be Jan. But next time we switch.” The whole idea of saying aloud, with authority, “I’m someone else,” amazes me. Their crushes alternate between the brothers from episode to episode, based on pubescent markers that attract or repel them—cracking voices, haircuts, braces. They say unsettling things like, “I wish Bobby was my brother. I want to marry him.” They choose based on wit, too. Whichever brother is funniest wins their hearts, which fills me with pride. The boys wouldn’t dream of revealing which Brady they prefer, but their faces can only be described as blissfully locked in. Not unlike how they look while playing on the Wii, but somehow newly innocent.
We own the entire series (the need to go whole hog became apparent as they were blowing through episodes like Homeland junkies), which is packaged in a lime green, shag-carpeted treasury box. The written synopses thrill them with anticipation. They cannot wait to watch the Hawaiian tiki-episode. “There’s a hairy tarantula,” I mention, and they squeal with excitement. They wish, like me, that Alice lived behind our oven. Our lives would be much better. And we would obviously let Sam-the-Butcher sleep over. Obviously! We value Alice that much. They ask questions about how Mike and Carol met. We don’t know. They ask about the previous marriages that produced the three girls and three boys. Mike’s first wife is dead. Carol’s past remains a mystery. Deadbeat Dad? Long trip? Carol isn’t telling.
It’s easy to remember the keen aspiration the show produced in me. Give it to me, I used to think. I loved that the family was untraditionally formed. There were hints that tough times had happened, but that those elements were before, off-screen, and that now, here they were—happy, safe, the Real Thing. They became. In my mind, I liked that there could be a Before that slowly receded and left nothing but an After. I see our children experiencing that when they watch. Only once or twice have any of them mentioned the show being from a different era. I watch the four of them squeezed onto the chaise of our couch, little legs intertwined, under a too-small blanket, letting these reflections of their family wash over them from an ancient piece of mid-century fiction. In a narrative dotted with casual references to tranquilizers, going steady, comically wide collars, and eight people to a station wagon with no seat belts (nine, counting Alice riding in the way-back with Tiger the dog—clear labor law violation), I observe our kids plucking out the pieces that are teeming with meaning for them. The humor, the sibling rivalry and loyalty, the desire to model a safe domestic tableau. Everything can be just fine. Everything will be fine. I don’t know if it’s the story of the Bradys, or the story I tell myself. But it’s a nice one.
I know why they love it, and it’s for the same reasons I did 30 years ago. If I wasn’t worried about interrupting their reverie, breaking the spell of rare, unanimous contentment, I would say to them, See? We have many befores in our family. Things have happened to us, some of it bad, and some stories that are not so shiny as this one. But look at us here in our crowded, disorganized house, two boys and two girls and a lady and a fellow, all of us battle-scarred and stitched up, but wildly in love. Here we are, too. Becoming.