(An original essay, published here for the first time.)
At a dinner party recently, I was seated next to a complete stranger, as one often is at these things, and between the soup and the main course we neatly segued onto the topic of our families. It’s sort of a natural progression, I’ve noticed, fueled by abnormally close quarters, free-flowing wine, and the likelihood that you will probably never see the person again.
Once we dispensed with our immediate families (spouses and what they “do,” along with our children and their unique categories of genius) it was only natural that we branched out further. This segment usually begins with something like, “So, where did you grow up?” Or, “Tell me about your parents and siblings.”
The reason I even mention this dinner party scenario, is that I have caught myself, on more than one occasion, in response to this birth family question, stating rather vaguely that one or more of my family members have “fallen through the cracks.” If my dinner partner is smart, he or she will realize that this statement (coupled with my sudden prolonged fascination with my glass of wine) is a hint to move along to a safer topic, like health care or climate change.
I’ve always thought my rote reply was a good gloss-over on the way to some other topic, and I never gave it much thought. It was my get-out-of-jail free card when questioned about my family. No one wants to hear about anyone who has “fallen through the cracks.”
But then I started noticing my phrase being co-opted by lots of other people. By senators and business leaders, by news pundits and even the President himself! There seemed to be a lot of people, and even things, falling through the cracks! I use exclamation points, something I am loath to do as a former English teacher, but something or someone falling through the cracks seems to warrant a sense of utmost urgency. Illegal guns, veterans, babies, the sick and disabled, the underemployed – all were suddenly falling through the cracks.
Since I have been using this phrase for years to explain away the myriad, complicated, and very real problems of my very own family members, I began to think harder about what the phrase meant. That’s another side effect of teaching English: words matter.
Falling through the cracks. When I really think about it, my immediate and now lingering after-image is both literal and visceral. It is of the earth opening up and a person falling into it. Like the nightmare you sometimes have where you are falling, and there is nothing to hold onto.
Dictionary.com offers their take on what the phrase means: To be neglected or overlooked. Likewise, wictionary.com: To be missed; to escape the necessary notice or attention. Nothing about falling into an actual crack. Yet the image lingers.
It’s easier to say things fall through the cracks. But people. People shouldn’t fall through the cracks. First of all, by the time the term is used, by the time a person has fallen through the cracks, the crack is usually more of a canyon, or a gaping chasm. There also seems to be a subtle implication that people who have fallen through the cracks have done so because of some trait of passivity or helplessness, or even plain stupidity. If only they’d made better choices!
My own family has thrown ropes, and reached out our arms, and sent care packages and money, and listened through teary phone calls in the middle of the night, to beloved family members who have slipped and lost their foothold, and who were hanging for dear life onto that last outcropping; the uncaring crack below beckoning them. Maybe that’s why the term safety net is often used in conjunction with these falling people. And maybe we shouldn’t be pulling these safety nets away, when that might be the only thing left that might break their fall.