This post was originally written in 2013.
It’s been five years since I last spoke to you and that was quite a spectator event. The night of my brother’s going away party to the Middle East and war. Your sister decided to take it upon herself to confront me in front of several people about how awful I had been to you the previous year. I can only imagine (wait, I don’t have to imagine because I’d heard) what you said about me to others. The lies you spread about me. All because you were angry. Since when does anger allow you to slander another person? Oh, I forgot, you’ve always had anger issues and I was chosen at a fairly early age to be the recipient of all that anger. Lucky me. And, lest I forget, it was everyone else’s fault that you were angry so you were justified. You couldn’t help it, everyone else made you do it. But, you don’t remember any of that. Now, after five years, you admit you had anger issues when I was growing up and you recently apologized for being angry. I appreciate the admission and the apology, but it’s not quite that simple.
You say that you don’t remember how you took your anger out on me. There is much about my growing up years that you don’t remember because you were in the grip of anger, resentment and bitterness over who knows what because we never talked about your home life. The life that shaped you. The life that made you into who you are. The parents who were so caught up in an unhealthy church environment that they neglected healthy relationships with each other and their children. The father who seemed meek and mild to everyone but whom I suspect was a frightfully hateful, jealous man in a passive/aggressive sort of way. The kind of man who didn’t let his wife leave the house alone very much. The kind of man who, when she was allowed to go to church for a sewing circle in the middle of the week, would follow her to make sure she wasn’t stepping out on him. Was that because she had an affair with him while married to her first husband? Was that the reason he suspected she would cheat again or was it just an unfounded evil jealousy? I can only speculate. Then there is your mother, my grandmother. A sweet woman, but a weak one. She was so burdened down with her guilt over having been divorced that this guilt informed all her decisions into her elder years. This guilt allowed her eldest daughter to take advantage and manipulate her over and over and over again. Now, how about that oldest daughter? Your half-sister? She was most likely a bully towards you and you suffered much growing up in her shadow.
And your little brother? The apple of your parents’ eye because he was a son and a son actually meant more than daughters back then. A son to carry on that family name that is so important. A little brother whom I suspect was allowed to get into quite a bit of trouble without consequence just as the oldest half-sister. They never had to face the consequences of their actions or bad choices, did they? Did you take the punishment for them? Not willingly, but simply because your parents didn’t want to punish “poor Dolly, she comes from a broken home” (I heard my grandmother say this on several occasions to me when my aunt was a completely grown woman in and after her fourth marriage) or to punish the baby of the family. So it fell to you, the middle child. You were the one who did the ‘right’ things. You waited to have children after you got married. You haven’t gotten divorced. You went to church regularly.
I do feel sorry for you. I do understand that yours was not an easy life, whether you can bring yourself to admit it or not. We both seem to suffer from memory loss. You struggle to remember the bad times of your growing up and I struggle to remember the good times in my growing up. It’s like if you admit that there were deep, dark, ugly secrets you will somehow defame your family line. Can’t you see that by denying and avoiding it, you caused deep, dark, ugly hurts in your own family? We have two chances to get our family relationships right. First, our relationship with our parents. Next, with our relationships with our kids. You couldn’t break the cycle and I paid the price.
Because you didn’t know any better, you treated your husband’s family with contempt. Mostly his mom and sisters because you are intimidated by strong women. By the time I was an adolescent, we barely saw any of his family at all.
Because you didn’t know any better, you pitted your own children against each other by playing favorites when it suited your intentions. We were too young to know we were being manipulated until many years later when it is too late to have anything other than a “can you believe the weather we’ve been having?” kind of relationship. We don’t really have anything in common and I believe that since I have kept silent in order to allow you to maintain a relationship with them; they believe your side of the story so it’s not worth it to me to even try to have a relationship with them.
Because you didn’t know better, you took your resentment and anger against your sister out on me. This is the beginning. I believe there was some unwritten family law that kept you from ever standing up to her…that pity over the circumstances of her life made you into someone who enabled her. Because you followed this law, you couldn’t ever assert yourself. So, you took it out on the next person most convenient to you. A young girl. Me. I was branded with all those words you would have used to describe your sister if you’d allowed yourself to do it. Why didn’t you allow yourself?
You say you don’t remember how you took your anger out on me. Unfortunately, I do. There are moments that are crystallized so clearly that I can see, hear, smell and feel them as if they are continuing to happen.
Like the time you were pregnant with your third child. We were on our way to Eyerly’s. Remember Eyerly’s? It was out Route 30 West where the Walmart is now. I loved going shopping at Eyerly’s. I loved the mannequins. This particular evening, it was mid-autumn and you had come to terms with the fact that you were having a third child. One you didn’t want because it would make your second child a middle child and you felt that middle children (because that’s what you were) would get lost in the mix. You didn’t realized you had the power to change that outcome without continuing to turn me into a monster in your head. Anyhow, you told me something that night on the ride. We were just about to turn into the shopping center. I can still see the traffic lights and smell the autumn air coming in the windows. It was still warm for that time of year. You told me that you had chosen names for the baby. You told me that if it was a girl, you would name her Tara. You were hoping she would be a “…real girl”. This was the criteria of a real girl you laid out for me that night:
- she would have beautiful, long hair that you could make all curly or could put braids in. To me, I knew what this meant. This meant not having a “girl” that you had to tape bows to her head just to make her look like a girl. I knew beautiful hair was important to you because you were a hairstylist and you needed the right kind of daughter with the right kind of hair you could advertise with. How awful you had a girl who didn’t have much hair when she was a toddler and then had straight short hair growing up. Scandalous.
- she would like to dress up in pretty things…aka she would wear patent leather shoes. She would like wearing patent leather. Instead you had a daughter who hated dresses and patent leather shoes (they hurt).
- she would not be a tomboy and only play with boys. I never actually understood this accusation, even at a young age. I never quite got how this was a “bad” thing and so distasteful to you. The only neighbor kids we had were boys. The only sibling I had was a brother. I would have gladly played with girls had any been around.
- she would have a cool and hip and popular name. This I also didn’t understand because you were the one who named me in the first place. How could I be responsible for my name that you didn’t like anymore?
Now, I made inferences in what you said that night. You trained me well in reading between the lines of what you say. You are a master of letting things unsaid but you know that I understand perfectly the jabs you are sending my way.
This is how you appear so innocent in all this. No one really sees, no one really hears what you do and say to me. Not really. On the surface it’s just normal conversation. But to me, I understand it as it is meant to be. Those arrows have stuck in my heart. I can write about it now in a weird detached way. The feelings are distant. They are hidden just out of my reach to really feel them anymore.
Maybe I’ve hid them in my hopeless chest. You know. The chest you gave me as a teenager. A traditional chest that was supposed to collect all the things that would prepare me for a suitable marriage. The linens, the flatware, the pots and pans, etc. You laughingly and tauntingly called it my “hopeless” chest because you said I would never find a good man who would love me. But, God had different plans for me. I found a good man who has loved me well. So well that most days I feel I don’t deserve it – now that makes the tears come. Those are emotions I feel.
Here’s a sampling of other things I remember which you don’t:
- I remember how you so often would make fun of my ears and how they stuck out. You and your sister thought this was great sport and brought much fun to you both to ridicule me in private and at family gatherings. My ears were such an embarrassment to you that you actually called the insurance company one time to see if they would pay for me to get my ears “tucked” – a process which would stitch my ears to my head to make them more attractive. My ears because such an embarrassment to me that it was many, many years before I would tuck my hair behind them and allow them to be seen. By the way, they stick out just enough to tuck hair back perfectly.
- I remember how you allowed my brother to break all the furniture in the dollhouse that Dad had made for me one year. You didn’t stop him because “I needed to learn to share”. You think I bring this up because I’m jealous of him. I’m not. I bring it up because it shows how much you despised who I was. I do believe the root of this behavior was the acting out of feelings towards your own sister.
- I remember one of the nights you walked out – there were several but this had a particular impact on me. I remember Dad down on his hands and knees begging you not to go. I remember you just opened the door and walked away…out into the darkness without a coat, a bag or the car. I didn’t know it was all for show. I was only about 6 and was scared out of my wits. We watched you walk down to the end of the road, hang a right and start up the hill until you were out of sight. You came back, though, and you were perfectly clear about why. You see, Dad carried my brother out onto the front poor. He was about 18 months old at the time. He was in his fuzzy, footed Carter’s pajamas. He was out of his head with screeching because he knew he was watching his mommy walk away. Apparently you couldn’t get those screams out of your ears. You came back, took him into your arms, looked at my Dad and told him you were coming back for my brother not for him. Then, you leveled your gaze at me and said, “..and I most certainly am not coming back for you.” I remember your eyes that night. All burning fire through their brilliant blue. No kindness, no compassion and no love in them.
- I remember the frequent taunting about me being a “Christian”. How all Christians were hypocrites and that included me. You called me a hypocrite on several occasions. I know you don’t remember. I know you felt yourself superior once you let go of the church. You told me that you felt more comfortable in a bar than at church. Good for you; I’m glad you’ve made your peace with faith or no faith.
- I remember my sister-in-law’s baby shower. I remember how you decided to take it upon yourself to plan and orchestrate the whole party, then you promptly dumped it all in my lap. You had your non-negotiable’s about the party. The party was to serve breakfast food and you insisted on serving quiche even though you knew that your daughter-in-law is a picky eater and did not like quiche. Who was I to disagree? This was your party. So, you drafted my cousin to make some quiche. I planned everything and I did enjoy it. It is something I’m pretty good at. I purchased and made decorations. I made the cake. I planned the games and purchased all the supplies. I made the food, except the quiche and the vegetable soup that you decided needed to be part of the menu at the last minute. The day of the party I arrived early laden with the decorations, food, game materials, etc. I proceeded to set up. You were annoyed that I wasn’t including you enough in “helping”. I suppose that’s why you did what you did. During the shower, you were laughing it up with all the guests and my sister-in-law was complaining about the quiche. I heard you say, “Well, you know (me), she always needs to try to impress with fancy food that nobody would like to eat.” Then you laughed quite loudly with the others at my idiocy. My grandmother and cousin (aka your mother and your niece) both heard you and both looked at me with such compassion in their eyes. They both hugged me and told me they were sorry that you had been so insensitive and cruel. Both had tears in their eyes.
- I remember the jealousy in your eyes when I got engaged. I remember how you would say mean things to me in a flippant way. I remember how I eventually got fed up and told you that if you didn’t want to help me find a dress, I’m sure I could find someone else who was interested in helping me. That got your attention. Maybe you were waiting for me to stand up to you all these years. I didn’t get the memo until I was 36.
Thirty-six years. That’s how long it took before I finally stood up to you. Over an innocent “remark”. Or so you say. You don’t remember the message you left on my machine. The vicious name you called me and my husband when you thought you had hung up but the machine caught it. Your granddaughter heard what you said. But, you don’t remember because to you it was just one comment in a long string of comments over the years meant to embarrass, wound, hurt or manipulate me.
And that’s the point…you don’t remember.
If you can’t remember then how can you keep yourself from repeating the cycle? From falling into the same pattern all over again. After five years, I know I will have a lot to make reparations for. I know that the punishment will be subtle and ongoing.
The last conversation we had you hissed at me, “Don’t you ever come to see your Daddy and I again. Don’t you dare call us or email us or make any contact whatsoever. Don’t you dare come to our funerals.”
Yes, Ma’am. I will honor your requests because even if you don’t remember…I do.
I can forgive you for making mistakes and being angry and not knowing how to deal with all your anger over so many things back in the 70’s and 80’s. However, forgiveness doesn’t mean that I must allow you back into my life or my family. It is precisely because you are my mother that I cannot allow you back in, you continue to be toxic to me. I have grieved the loss of that relationship and moved on. I do not need to revisit it. It is my hope that with this “letter” you can let go of your idea that I’m somehow the black sheep of the family who has lost her way and just needs to find the path back home where “you are waiting”. That’s not going to happen…sorry.