I recently began volunteering with my daughter Chloe at Operation Wildlife, where they work miracles with orphaned and injured animals. Many of them are released back into the wild when they’re old enough or their injuries heal, but some — such as birds that imprint with humans — have to stay for good. Daffy Duck was a hoot, but when a real duckling thinks it’s a person, no good can come of it.
Weekly World News headlines aside, I don’t know whether humans confuse themselves with other animals. But imprinting results in “innate behaviours [being] released in response to a learnt stimulus,” which doesn’t sound that different from us growing up believing it’s our parents’ and grandparents’ role to take care of us. They make dinner; we eat it. They buy toys; we play with them. They are the disciplinarians; we are the disciplinees.
I adored Grandma when I was a child, but I knew not to cross her. I don’t ever remember her spanking me, but I was definitely in her bad books from time to time. Once when I was a teenager I accidentally bounced about eighty dollars worth of checks, which earned me a long lecture about responsibility and money not growing on trees. I paid my loan back, but three decades later she still chides me about the mistake. Talk about selective memory.
Even after Grandma came to live with me, it was a long time before I ignored my ingrained response to her authority. Case in point: I drove the circuit between my home, her hospital bed in another city an hour away and her home another 90 minutes away every time she got a wild hair a window was cracked or the basement door might be open or the backyard sump pump drain could be blocked.
Inevitably, the windows were shut, the door wasn’t open, and the drain wasn’t blocked, although a menacing nest of cobra-looking snakes reared up from nowhere and hissed at me when I was looking for the exit pipe in her backyard. “Screw that,” I thought. “For all I care a walrus can take up residence in that hole before I go back.”
Maybe that was the moment I realized the Grandma-grandchild model no longer applied. I still delivered on every reasonable request. But I brushed off errands spawned by pure paranoia. I withheld mail when she grabbed for it without saying thank you. Small acts of defiance for sure; but unchartered territory nonetheless.
Seven years later, we live in full-fledged role reversal. I wash the clothes; Grandma won’t change hers. I tell her she must bathe; she stalls another day. Being the bossy granddaughter has earned me a couple of nicknames — Mama Bird when Grandma’s feeling charitable … The War Department if I’ve yelled, confiscated trash or conducted an unannounced inspection of her favorite food hiding places. She defies me in small ways constantly, but she knows who’s boss. Not because I want to be, but because nobody else applied for the job.