School is a steady constant in most suburban children’s lives, but my experience was particularly steady for my first ten years of education. I went to a Catholic grammar school from preschool to eighth grade, seeing several new students arrive each year but essentially growing up alongside the same 40-ish faces for a decade. My entire world was within those brick walls, and now with a whole other decade of life under my belt, it’s mind-blowing to remember how confined everything was.
My morning routines before school were almost as predictable as the way I knew my mother would always pack my latest lunch craving (consistently a turkey sandwich by middle school) and how we could expect the rare father or two volunteering on Pizza Day to stack empty boxes as high as they could (“More, more, more!” the student mobs would chant). Each morning, I’d wake, dress in my uniform, and pick at a breakfast bar, frozen mini pancakes, or cereal as I flipped through our local paper. It didn’t occur to me until I was much older that waking to the sounds of your parents listening to the news on the kitchen radio and subsequently reading the paper as a kid sounded a little strange to others.
As with anything print nowadays, the paper’s current state pales in comparison to my favorite section back then: the comics. Like clockwork, I’d skip stories of Long Island political battles and car accidents to skim the celebrity section, packed with Lohan family news and tracking which local reality star was cut from their TV competition that week (JP Rosenbaum, an eventual Bachelorette husband, is still our crowning glory in my eyes). Then, the piece de resistance: the familiar, simple stories the comics told. As I pored over the quickly resolved, otherworldly strips — Stone Soup, Baby Blues, Blondie — one comic always stuck out as proudly different.
The growing family in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse were often experiencing things I didn’t even understand yet as a tween-turned-teen in the mid-to-late 2000s. The strip had its grand finale when I was 13 in 2008, probably a handful of years after I started reading it every morning, but I think I always knew it was special. Although it started as a story about a young couple and their two kids, the strip aged its characters in real time rather than keeping them stagnant.
By the time I started reading regularly, the Pattersons had a third child, a musical teen who still lived at home while her big brother had started his own family and her sister was balancing a teaching career and a confusing love life. The strip included a seemingly endless supply of secondary characters — grandparents, friends, schoolmates. This world was already fully formed when I discovered it, and even though I hadn’t witnessed it, I loved that its long history was evident in its frames. Sometime in high school, I received the published book of Johnston’s last year of strips, revolving around middle child Elizabeth’s engagement and wedding. While on a nostalgic bender right before Christmas last year, I bought two books chronicling earlier years of For Better or For Worse.
It’s not something I think about everyday, but if considered long enough, I realize how much I miss reading a genuine, realistic update on this family every morning. I kicked off 2019 by reading Morgan Matson’s Save the Date, which loosely adapts the idea of Johnston using her own family as inspiration for the early days of her work. I devoured and adored the book, but its focus on the printed frames tidying up life’s mistakes made me wonder how often Johnston chose fiction over fact in For Better or For Worse. In some cases, real life is a pretty boring or disappointing story compared to how smoothly a story can capture the world.
But on the comics page, real life is usually slipping on a banana peel or talking to a striped cat. It’s disproportionate body parts and flawlessly sturdy hairstyles. For Better or For Worse delivered more happy endings than heart-wrenching ones, but these happy endings are attainable ones. And in between bits of cereal and a dose of Snoopy, this melding of fact and fiction was the perfect wake-up call.