Recently, my little brother, T., bought himself an interesting book titled The Dangerous Book for Boys. He had just purchased the book when I met up with him and he was still basking in the glow of excitement. He flipped quickly through the pages, showing me images of knots, paper airplanes and other instructions of things a boy “should” know how to do. At that very moment, I saw my brother in a different light. No longer a tattoed, pierced, hard working man of 30-something with wife and kids in tow…he was now a child of six or seven, wishing for his father to give him the attention he needed, wishing for his mother to come home and tend to his needs, for his older sister to back the hell off and mind her own business.
I saw the child he was and the child still there and I loved him.
My brother and I didn’t have the easiest childhood. Mom, who was the matriarch of our family, had a car accident that left her disabled and needing care herself and Dad was usually escaping into work. T. and I were left to our own devices, to deal with life as best we could. This is a tall order for children ages 5 and 8. Even with the involvement of neighbors, sitters and others we suffered abuses of all kinds and experimented in areas we had no business exploring.
A lot was expected of us, from distant family who rarely visited, governmental employees who were just doing their job, well meaning neighbors who who were just trying to help and from my father who was now head of household and had no clue how to handle it. I was constantly told to be a “good girl” and take care of my mother, a “good girl” and take care of my brother, take care of the house, my studies, the laundry, my reputation, ad nauseum. “You be a good girl” became a mantra of self-hate. I turned inward at the pressures I was being put under. Too much was expected of me as the eldest child and I found myself failing miserably. I was a stressed-out single mother, protector, student and responsible person before my first menses. To this day I carry the burden of guilt at not measuring up to all the demands set upon me. I was not a “good girl”.
I have been working on this guilt I’ve made my own for several years now and this paradigm shift, this new point of view, allowed me a glimpse beyond myself in this area. I realized that my little brother went through the same circumstances and he was affected as much as I was, if not more, since he was younger. I was always aware of this at some level, but for the first time I was able to see it without the associated guilt. Beholding the innocent child within the man today made me realize that I was a child at the time, too, not a grown up in a child’s body as I assumed I was. The constant reminders that I was to takce care of home and hearth, to clean up -“Why wasn’t the laundry done?”, “Why hasn’t the floor been mopped?”, “Have you been taking care of your mother?”, and on and on- convinced me that I was responsible for all these things when in fact, I wasn’t.
A couple of years ago I went through a horrible depression. Memories surfaced that I hadn’t thought of in ages. Images popped out of nowhere and took over the movie screen of my mind. My imagination, often my friend, source of fantasy and escape, was now flooded with recollections that brought pain, lonliness and deep guilt. I recalled being in the 4th or 5th grade and my brother and I were being taken care of by an enourmous woman named O. She had a son, E., who was in my grade and was one of my earliest bullies. We went through hell at their hands but I found no way to express this to my parents. We rarely saw my mother after her accident. She was in and out of different hospitals, sterile places far from home that didn’t allow children, so visits were few and far between. When she was home, she was usually so full of pain killers she might as well not have been there. Dad was always a workaholic. And I assume the stress of suddenly losing a dynamic wife and now being responsible for her care, as well as the care of his two young children, only pushed him further into escapism. So who was I to turn to? What would I have said?
O. was terrifying. She was about 5’3″ and over 250 lbs. She was angry, controlling, rude and abusive. She never had a kind word to say about anything or anybody. She was one who would come charging out of the shower naked just to beat the shit out of her son, myself or my brother if she thought we were misbehaving or dared take a misstep. Her son, E., was my nemesis. He looked for every opportunity to antagonize me, humiliate me in front of others and make my life downright miserable. The only times I had any relief was during class. But the school, in its infinite wisdom, decided that since we were to leave together it would be a good idea to put us in the same class room as well. I was then constantly tormented.
O. provided room and board for male university students at her home, so there were always new faces that came and went as the school year changed. Her house, although always busy, was not a welcoming place to be except for the back yard. She had a big screened in patio with a nice roomy table and chairs galore. There was also a huge wash basin off to the side and against the wall. From an artist’s point of view, the area would have made a great plein air studio. There was a screened door that led to the yard where O. had egg laying hens and a colorful little quiquiriqui. My brother and I had fun chasing the chickens and being chased in turn, by the angry little rooster. We spent a lot of time in the yard and the patio. Looking back, I know I checked the door to the house on several ocassions and found we had been locked outside. I never said anything to T. Outside was safer, most of the time.
I won’t go into the details of the abuses we suffered under that woman’s care, but to this day I carry the guilt of abandoning my baby brother in that house alone. After school, I would run to my mother’s empty house instead of going to O.’s as I was expected to. I had no key, so I learned to break in the front door with a butter knife. I would then spend the rest of the day by myself, locked up in the last room of the house for hours, terrified of being alone, but feeling equally afraid of the alternative. I sat there day after day, hour after lonely hour, thinking of my brother and how he fared at O.’s. I would fantasize that I was suddenly fully grown, and walking into her house, I would push her inmense girth aside as I snatched my little brother away and brought him home to safety. T., then known to me as Little Louie, would be picked up from O.’s at the end of the day and brought home. He would arrive home angry and resentfully remind me that I was supposed to have been there, too. That I had run away and left him. He would funnel his anger at me by picking a fight and I would fight back with equal passion to dispel the anger and guilt I had accumulated that afternood. Shortly thereafter, I would argue with my father while he barraged me with a list of things that didn’t get done that day and the myriad reasons why I was incompetent.
The strain was so intense that at night I would intermittently cry myself to sleep or pray to God for resolution. I would beg for mom’s health to improve so that she could come back and be Mom again. She would know how to fix this mess and above all, she would know exactly what level of hell she would send O. and her son to. Mom would make it all better once God made her all better. By the time I realized the answer to my prayers was “no”, I then asked only for the strength to fill all the needs that were being imposed on me. For the ability to be a “good girl”. To be enough.
Recently, I found a school picture taken at about that time in my life. I remember much of that picture day experience. I believe it was the first time my mom wasn’t there. My hair hadn’t been combed that morning. My heart sank when the teacher announced that we were to line up to go have our picture taken. Someone let me borrow a plastic comb and I did my best to fix my hair without the benefit of a mirror. I remember the adults would keep on asking me “Are you sure you want to have your picture taken today? Absolutely sure?” Today I look at that picture and have to smile. I know why they were so insistent. My hair was a mess! It only reiterates the reality of that time: I was a kid with a lot on my plate and there wasn’t much I could do to change my circumstances.Those that were to care for us, didn’t. My parents did as best they could with the skills and the awareness they had. They were about my age now, maybe a little younger. I haven’t been the perfect parent. I have felt, and at times still feel, lost and confused and I am not even remotely in the same situation as they were. I wonder, how overwhelmed were they feeling at that time? Did they cry their losses as I did? Did they pray as hard as I did? Did they want their mommy, too?
I am learning to let go now. To move forward with faith and with hope create a better today. I must trust that the Creator has allowed certain things to occur for a reason. Yes, the situation sucked and things were less than ideal, but they are also over and done with. Living in the past, reliving the sadness and the pain will do me and mine no good. As obscure as the reasons are to me now, there were lessons to be taught there, lessons to be learned; for some of us, maybe for all of us.