After a long time abroad, Randy Mesmer returned home to discover that he'd become the mad relative. Of course he did not realize it right away. Everyone seemed only unusually interested. His father ceased to criticize; his brothers grinned at everything he said. His mother stood often in the doorway, gazing at him with tender brimming eyes. And Randy Mesmer's heart grew warm. He thought they'd really missed him after all. For weeks he didn't have a clue. In fact he felt quite pleased with himself. He thought, it's about time they start to respect me!
The mad relative: every generation must have one. Like Aunt Lucy, his father's sister, who was brought from the state hospital in Laconia to attend all family occasions. There she sat, grinning in her folding chair, smoking menthol Salems, and mumbling into the air. Now and then she groped one of the nephews. She was getting old, poor Aunt Lucy. She'd had surgery for cancer and afterward no one could say for certain what had been removed.
After a few weeks home, Randy began to make suggestions about the future of the pumpkin farm. His father, Ulysses Richard Mesmer, was also getting on in years. Certain decisions must be made. Randy was relieved to discover that everyone agreed to his suggestions immediately.
He was so pleased it took him weeks to notice, and weeks longer to admit, that his suggestions and opinions had absolutely no effect. Everything went on exactly as it always had. Dick Mesmer remained firmly in charge. (His father hated the name Ulysses and used only the first initial.)
One day, when Randy became particularly insistent, he was taken to the furthest corner of Pumpkin Field #12 and left there for nine hours with only a peanut butter and honey sandwich and a deplorably dull hoe.
Certainly it is disconcerting to discover that one has become Puerto Rico in the family: you go right on voting, but your vote counts for nothing.
Every member of the family felt pleased at the way Aunt Lucy was treated. They removed her from the madhouse for special events the same way they took the big punch bowl from the back closet, always careful to give it a good rinse first. They considered themselves extremely enlightened. Randy had felt this way too. He was ashamed to think of it now.
Every generation must have a mad relative. Now it was his turn.
"I'm not crazy," Randy Mesmer insisted. "I can quietly give reasonable and pragmatic reasons to support my moderate opinions!"
His brother and sister-in-law nodded at him and smiled beneath sad eyes. He was the mad relative. There was no court of appeal.
Actual madness, you see, had very little to do with being the mad relative. The entire family was mad. It was more about power and plain bad luck. Traditionally of course, a woman generally got stuck being the mad relative. Now it was more equal opportunity.
If being the mad relative were determined by actual madness, his father would win hands down. Instead he was in charge of the farm and took turns persecuting his sons and imagining himself to be prominent figures from history: Lincoln, Trotsky, Madame Blavatsky, Harry Houdini, Helen Keller. If you questioned him you were promptly demonized. This was a miserable and dangerous situation -- you could very well be declared the mad relative.
Why, he wondered, must there always be a mad relative? Certainly it must have stemmed, centuries before, from pragmatic reasons. One less way to divide the pie. The mad relative forfeits everything.
It is true that the mad relative usually did end up being actually, factually mad. After all, it is enough to make anyone crazy, being the ghost/dream voice/dependent protectorate in the family. Also it is natural to want to fulfill family expectations, just as, in other families, one son becomes a priest.
Aunt Lucy had begun years ago to drool. She drooled more as time went on. Nephews learned to dodge her hands. Who could blame her, Randy thought. There was no prize for obedience, nor penalty for misbehavior. You are a ghost in the family. You might as well not exist. You are the mad relative and you will always be the mad relative.