forworse (forworse) wrote in binky_betsy,

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In the Beginning: "I've Got the One-More-Washload Blues..."

I've been re-reading the collections over the past few weeks and reminding myself why I used to love For Better or For Worse.  As I've gone through the books, I've been mentally composing little essays about the stories and characters, and wondering what other contributers to this board thought when they first saw them, and what they think now.

This is my first post, so I hope I do this correctly!  I'd just like to add that, unlike the strip which inspired this essay, I hope I don't ramble on for far too long.

In the beginning…

The collection begins with an introduction from LJ describing drawing as a form of therapy and thanking her parents for the gift of a sense of humour.  Most strips are just single-panel affairs touching on little aspects of parenthood, but as the weeks pass, they begin to grow into longer stories as an overall narrative begins to form. The strip is very much Elly’s point of view, with a few strips showing John at work or the kids at play. 

John is in his mid-30s and Elly feels obliged to confess to a babysitter that she is 32. Michael is six, confirmed in a strip where an elderly lady coos over baby Lizzie but doesn’t ask Mike anything. He rattles off all the things he could have told her if she’d asked him, then remarks sadly that she didn’t ask him. Later on he says that he’s in kindergarten. These are strips from 1979-80, which makes Michael just a bit older than I am, although now, 30 years later, I’ve become a few years his senior. LJ has said that she “froze” Mike’s and Lizzie’s ages for three years but I’ve yet to discover when exactly that happened; perhaps working through these collections I’ll figure it out. 

Lizzie (or Lizzy on one occasion) is an infant and it is established that she is cute and that Elly likes to dress her up in frilly clothes. She is walking by midway through the collection but there aren’t any strips showing her first steps or words; by the end of the collection Elly is trying to potty-train “Nizzie”, but essentially she is a prop in the stories of the rest of the family and doesn’t feature in any narratives. As she is too young to do anything on her own, she is most often seen being carried around by her parents. (At such an early point in her life this observation is meant to be taken literally, not figuratively.) 

The Patterson family dynamics are established within a few pages: Mike is talkative and energetic, hungry for his parents’ attention and somewhat threatened by the presence of a baby; Elly is overwhelmed with housework and the pressure of being a mother of two, and frets about her weight, asking John loaded questions about whether or not he thinks she is fat. 

Within the first week of the published strip we are also treated to the first example of Elly trying to work while Mike asks her questions, causing her to lose her temper and shout at him. Another week later there is a disagreement between Elly and John and she refuses to tell him why she’s angry, so just glares at him silently instead. And of course, we see Elly as she swears, yells, howls, beats her chest, fumes and scowls while shouting about how much housework she has to do.  

However, unlike the focus of the re-runs, there are a number of strips showing John helping out with the kids and occasionally doing household chores. There are also strips showing a loving relationship between John and Elly, and also the love of the parents for their children, such as one strip in sequence but overlooked in the series of recent re-runs, where Mike and Elly make cookies together and she thinks about how mother love makes the cookies taste so good. Although the general trend in parenting does involve threats and shouting, there are other strips where John and Elly try to discuss things with Mike to make him understand why there are certain words he shouldn’t say or unacceptable behaviours, but it is also demonstrated that Mike tends to tune out lectures. 

Evidence of John’s chauvinistic attitudes, in addition to the way he treats Elly when she works as his assistant, is frequent. Elly questions John about whether or not he’d fool around if he were away from home for any period of time; John looks too interested in the scenario she’s proposing and Elly flees the conversation, leaving a coffee cup hanging in mid-air (but not, at this point, thrown at John’s head). Another time, John is seen reading is reading “Macho Man” magazine with a big-lipped, big-haired girl on the cover while Elly laments that she sometimes forgets how to fantasize. At a party, Elly spies John leering at an attractive and voluptuous woman but he remarks only on her “great teeth”; months later, John wears his glasses while swimming so he can ogle the bikini-clad girls playing beach volleyball. When Ted is visiting, Elly overhears John saying that he has nine girls working for him, and realizes that he counted her…the list goes on and on, but the main example of John’s attitudes comes when Elly contemplates getting a job after Mike starts Grade 1. John tells Jean that it might be selfish, but he likes his wife to be at home and doesn’t like the idea of working mothers. He’s happy for Elly to be as liberated as she wants, as long as she stays home. When Elly complains that she can’t spend her life baking cookies and picking up socks, he retaliates by saying that his mother did; however, he does suggest that Elly could fill in for Jean for a week while Jean is on holiday. 

John’s character is partially redeemed, in my opinion, when he offers to ease Elly’s stress and looks after the kids for a weekend while she makes a pre-Christmas visit to her parents; that they live in Vancouver and the Pattersons in Ontario isn’t established until a few months later when Elly takes Mike and Lizzie on their first plane journey. Elly returns feeling refreshed and confesses that, when she told her mother all about her “problems”, her mother called her a spoiled brat (well said, Marian!). We don’t see her parents during this first trip, but meet them early the following summer when Elly, Mike and Lizzie visit. Marian has a proto-Ellybun but Grandpa Jim’s chin-nuts come and go from strip to strip. Elly lectures Jim to stop smoking and Marian to change her hairstyle; in return they confess that they were sorry that Elly didn’t finish university before getting married. Unfortunately, John has left the dishes, laundry and mess for Elly to clean up when she gets back and my opinion reverted to its original state: “John is an insensitive jerk”. 

Connie is a major character, seen more frequently than any other non-Patterson. She was identified in the ten-year anniversary collection as the unnamed woman who is seen gabbing with Elly over coffee in the very first time such a scenario was used. This is the only time she is shown not wearing glasses as she warns Elly about the possibility that John might have an affair, based on her observations of daytime television. 

It is established that both Connie and Annie are friends with Elly, but not especially close to one another: Connie tells Elly about a date she had and Elly gossips to Annie then feels guilty for having spoken of one friend to another behind the former’s back; she justifies this by deciding that Connie never told her that the information was confidential. Slightly longer stories usually begin with a visit from Connie – talking about her divorce and her trouble meeting someone new – and ending with Elly acknowledging that she takes her good life and happy marriage for granted.

In fact, it would appear that Connie has the best-established, or at least the most interesting, backstory: she says that she was the youngest of six girls and her father’s last try for a boy, that she doesn’t need to watch soap operas because her marriage to Pete was a soap opera, and that her marriage to Pete was the only relationship she’d had (subsequently retconned to add Pablo da Silva as Connie’s lover and Lawrence’s father). In the year since their marriage ended, Connie is still colouring her hair the way Pete liked it. For his sake, Connie became an artsy, athletic red-head, a kitchen genius and a model wife, and Elly points out that Connie was a defeatist with an inferiority complex during her marriage but became a different person since her divorce. Meanwhile, Connie says that Elly doesn’t appreciate John enough, dwells on petty personal problems and overlooks the really working partnership they have together. Unfortunately, these astute observations from Connie are not acted upon and Elly does nothing to change her behaviour. 

Almost from the get-go, a slender and pretty Elly is seen worrying about her weight and already hoping to lose ten pounds. We see her channelling Cathy, trying on bathing suits and complaining about the way “they” want women to look this season. Elly and Annie (not Connie!) take up jogging, and Annie later joins a “weight control clinic” but knows she lacks the willpower to succeed at a diet. We see Elly buying anti-wrinkle cream “for a friend”, wearing it at night but still finding her first wrinkle, saddened that no one calls her “young lady” anymore, and berating construction workers for not whistling at her. John does try to reassure Elly that he loves her no matter what she looks like, pointing out that he married her despite the old saying that all girls turn into their mothers in twenty years. (What he didn’t know then was what Elly would look like after thirty years…) 

John also has some appearance issues mentioned in passing, like his one remaining chest hair not yet having fallen out and, after assuring Mike that he will one day be tall, have a deep voice and wear the same size shoes as his father, John hears Mike hoping that he gets a nose like Elly’s. Be careful what you wish for Mike! Elly yells at John more than once about the kind of clothing he was wearing, horrified about what people might think of him. John reports this to Ted who calls him “henpecked” and urges John to tell Elly he’ll wear what he likes. John thinks that it’s just easier to change his clothes. 

One thing which sticks out, for me, is that, since Michael is six, Elly became a mother at 26. Her parents said that she dropped out of university to marry John, so presumably she and John must have had five years or so of early married life before having children. Elly recalls how things used to be back when she and John were dating and couldn’t keep away from each other and then, while assisting at the dental clinic, she remembers fondly how she used to help out when John had just finished dental school (John replies that was back when he still enjoyed working), so was this what Elly was doing all that time? Or did she just stay at home and clean? When Annie suggests that having another baby would help Elly relieve the perceived boredom of her life, John puts his foot down and says he’s absolutely positive that they will not have another.  Elly suggests that he take some “permanent precautions” in this case and John panics and says that he wasn’t that positive. Clearly they never discussed this again! 

Finally, on the origin of Pattersnarfing: Elly gets fed up with making fancy food because no one appreciates it, so she takes out a tin of “Giant Economy Beans” and throws them in a pot with a “Splorp” and tosses them onto plates with a “Dump”. John tells Mike, “Yessir…give a girl time and she’ll finally serve a good meal” and he eats with saliva dribbling from his chin and “Drool” and “Chomp” sound effects. Several weeks later John buys Elly a microwave and tells Jean that Elly can now burn dinner in one tenth the time, making it sounds as if Elly couldn’t cook in the first place. Perhaps that’s why no one appreciated her “fancy food”. The very last strip in the book, a Sunday strip, is full of cooking and snarfing sound effects, but at the end Mike tells Elly that she made a really good supper and she is happy and smiling in the final panel, thinking, “Strange how a few words can give you the strength to carry on…” 

Recurring characters:
  • Connie and Lawrence Poirier
  • Annie Nichols and baby Christopher, seen coming over for coffee and frequent discussions of how SAHMs are unappreciated. Annie’s husband Steve is mentioned but not seen. Annie boasts of making all her own baby food for Christopher, embarrassing Elly, who feeds Lizzie store-bought food.
  • Elly's parents, Jim and Marian Richards, although their names are not given
  • Jean Baker, John’s assistant, although she is not named until nearly the end of the collection, first as “Miss Baker” and then as “Jean”.
  • Ted McCauley
  • Deanna Sobinski, first seen pushing a toy around in a baby carriage. Mike greets her by calling her “Wart-Head” and “Deanna, Deanna, fat as a pianna”; Deanna belts him and Mike thought-bubbles, complete with hearts, “She touched me”. Later on Mike gets Deanna’s photograph and shows Elly, who says that Deanna is very pretty and that the picture must be something very special to Mike.  Mike replies that he had to beat up Lawrence for it.
  • Mrs (Thelma) Baird, not seen but mentioned in passing several times as a neighbour with a nice garden.
  • Mike’s Superteddy and Lizzie’s toy bunny
Other characters
  • Marie, John’s hygienist, who isn’t seen but it is mentioned that she is leaving the dental practice. John interviews five girls for her position and narrows the field down to two, one who is experienced and has good references, and one who looks like Cheryl Ladd. Although it is soon revealed that John hired the applicant with the best references and most experience, Connie later points out that all of the girls in John’s office are gorgeous and asks Elly how she competes with all that icing; Elly replies, “By being the cake.”
  • Helène (with just the one accent – perhaps she’s half-French, half-English), one of John’s dental assistants.
  • Karen, the thirteen-year old babysitter who watches Mike and Lizzie while John and Elly go out for a romantic New Year’s Eve
  • Pete(r), Connie’s ex-husband, mentioned in various strips but never seen. Connie says that he left her with a house, a car, the bills, two Siamese cats and a five-year old kid.  Connie describes Pete as the perfect dresser, always in the latest style, who looked fantastic, but was like thin plywood with walnut veneer.
  • Hazel and Lorraine, miscellaneous guests at some party Elly and John attended, and John’s patients Melissa, “Brawling” O’Brian and Mr Shadbolt. Why did I include them here? Because it seems that anyone who has ever been mentioned in the strip will get a Who’s Who bio, no matter how insignificant, while major characters like Anthony, who might benefit from some more background information, rate just a sentence or two.
  • Dr Norman Plett, the doctor who examines Lizzie when she had tonsilitis.
Tags: foob history

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    Sorry I'm late! Panel 1: John's enthusiasm face is creepy. It always seems inappropriate for the events he's crowing about. What is he on about,…

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  • Sunday, January 27

    "An'"s: Two. "Quotes": One. Panel 1: Merrie says "cool," which I find surprising; she seems more like a Precious Moments kid. Her face is exactly…

  • Monday, December 31

    "An'"s: Two. Panel 1: Oh frabjous day! April gets to go out on New Year's! Wonder why Deanna doesn't need her to babysit? And no, that's not the…

  • Friday, December 28

    Sorry I'm late! Panel 1: John's enthusiasm face is creepy. It always seems inappropriate for the events he's crowing about. What is he on about,…