Continued from here….
I made it through college with fewer trips home. It was not a conscious repudiation of my family. I just stayed because, as I thought, it was a pain to go home. I had more work opportunities over the summer in Chicago. None of my high school friends were around anymore. My life was in Chicago. Looking back now, I know I was happier 1000 miles away.
I wasn’t partying on breaks. I was working or going to class. I never partied…it wasn’t comfortable.
I would get long letters from my father, who when I was in college had taken up a letter-writing kick. 10 pages at a time. Both sides. Sadly detached despite the length. Detailed to-do lists. Little heartfelt. I appreciated the attempt. He traveled a lot in those days; I always pictured him cramped on a plane writing to his three children, trying to avoid getting his elbow bumped by the drink cart.
The letters got personal if I got a grade he didn’t like. He would lecture me in a similar 10-page style. Never a phone call. A letter. An angry letter that I was most obviously “screwing around” and “not taking studying seriously.” It wasn’t, of course, that I struggled with material that was beyond me, that I was struggling. The letters more than once implied that I was wasting his money. I did not get similar “You’re spending my money so well!” letters when my grades improved (they always did) or in relation to the 3.8 in my major. My mother would add reminders that she got through graduate school in one year because she was poor and worked herself to the bone and got all A’s reading Shakespeare plays all in one night and women just weren’t in grad school at the time and did she mention she also met and dated my father during that period?
The letters made me angry. I wrote one back, once, telling him that I had anything but a cavalier attitude towards college and towards money. I was made all too aware of the sacrifices that he and my mother made…without my asking. I took on extra jobs. I stopped eating at the campus dining hall and lived mostly on cold cereal. I still didn’t date much. I hadn’t lost the freshman 15 and felt like a whale. (I had entered college with 18% body fat. I know this because it was measured the 2nd day of orientation for the required physical fitness test. I was so damned proud of that.)
May my sophomore year, my sister asked me and my brother and father if we wanted to get my mom a tree for Mother’s Day. I knew that the type she wanted (and my mother would accept) would be hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. I suggested something smaller but in the same vein…a shrub or a bush. It was not a joke, nor was I bashing the idea. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t like the idea that my father would end up paying for 90% of a Mother’s Day gift from “all of us.” I could afford a nice bush or a rose plant or a house plant.
My sister chewed me out (she must have been reading my Dad’s letters!) that if I really loved Mom, it wouldn’t be about the money. I would find a way. I tried to explain that wasn’t what I meant…
That was, in all seriousness, the last time she spoke to me for almost 20 years.
I did hear, however, that she scammed my recovering-from-cancer-single-mother aunt out of $5000 a few years later because she got in over her head in debt…probably trying to show people she loved them. I don’t say that nastily. It was sad and embarrassing for everyone.
My sister struggled as I did with the idea of love and self-acceptance and finding voice. I know now that while I squashed my anger down, she stoked hers. She is a raging ball of anger. She lashes out so she doesn’t get hurt first. She is lonely.
I was told repeatedly (as I believe I’ve mentioned here) as I grew up that she was jealous of me from the moment I was born. That I should be understanding and forgiving of her anger. That things are always harder for her. Turn the other cheek.
She was pretty volatile growing up. More so now. She could make us all wilt.
Family relationships, particularly among the siblings, were not really fostered. We all tiptoed around my sister’s anger…one wrong move would send her into spasms of tears and fits of yelling. No one understood. (And to be honest, I didn’t. We didn’t really speak.) I was told to leave her alone when she was in pain (meaning Don’t Ask…not meaning that I was antagonizing her.) We stayed out of her way. I annoyed her perpetually. I was stupid. I didn’t get it. I was in the way. I was there. She constantly reminded me that I was there.
Turn the other cheek. Let it go. Life is harder for her.
Someday I’ll tell you.
My mom never has told me. She became information central, the control pad for the family. Enough was shared to tell us all to butt out. I do know my sister was not abused nor harmed (I asked pointedly years later). It was, and always has been, according to my mother…Hurt.
She was hurt when she was a size 10 and her friends were all a size 4 (She hurt when my mother bought her a girdle, too. She was hurt when my mother gave her salads. She was hurt when she wanted to join sports teams but we were told those would infringe on all the religious activities my parents took part in [see previous posts])
She was hurt when she was not asked to the prom. (She was hurt when my mother told her to ask our cousin.) She was prom chairman and didn’t go to her own prom. It never occurred to anyone that she go alone. I suggested it. She glared at me, burst into tears, pushed her chair back and ran to her room.
When I was asked to a prom the next year (I was in a different school), she locked herself in her room for two days. She sobbed loudly as I got dressed. She stomped in her room. She played moody 80s music while my date picked me up.
She’s jealous. Take it easy. We’ll go shopping when she’s at an activity. We won’t rub it in her face.
It never occurred to me to ask why my mother would even think I would consider “rubbing it in her face.”
I felt guilt.
My sister left for college and finalized her Total Stranger Plan. She didn’t want to email me other than to let me know that my parents said I was wasting money and talent at school by getting “B-” grades in some of my classes. That I was obviously doing nothing but partying and having multiple boyfriends. (I wish. I would have stayed at college longer!)
My brother stayed out of everything.
I graduated in three years. I busted my ass to graduate college in three years because all I heard was that my parents were “killing themselves” to send me to school. That they’d “killed themselves” for years to be able to afford school for all of us.
I talked with them about paying them back, taking out loans, getting more jobs. I was told “No. It’s our pleasure to pay.” A lethal pleasure, it seems.
My first and third years of college, I got phone calls that my Work-20-hours-a-day mother was in the hospital. I asked to be picked up at the airport and was told not to come home. She didn’t want me home. She wanted me at school. Both times she was in the hospital, I was in finals.
I was terribly conflicted about that. I called my mother’s hospital room 3 or 4 times a day. I wrote. I sent books and magazines. As soon as my last finals were taken, I rushed home to visit. I was a mess. I remember being so stressed and exhausted that I got on one of those moving pedways at O’Hare and it took me a moment to realize I was walking against the flow. It was going north, I was trying to walk south on it. Nice metaphor. Also embarrassing.
She blamed my father for not taking better care of her. She was working so hard. My dad had been transferred to another state for three years, and was coming home every weekend before she got sick. He was rooted to her side when she did get sick.
My brother, 14 at the time, blamed himself, but only after he started hearing, “Don’t blame yourself, Joe. It’s your father’s fault.”
I knew things were getting back to normal when my mother asked why I hadn’t gotten all A’s on my finals. Then she told me not to bother going to my sister’s college graduation because that also was during my finals that spring, and my sister didn’t really want me there anyway. You’re competition for her. Let it be her weekend.
So I went back to school. I graduated in three years. I asked my sister to come to graduation if she wanted. She didn’t.
For three years, I had no friends, no real female friends who I sat up with at night and shared and did stupid and smart things with. I never had those connections. It didn’t help that I was in a dorm with all single rooms.
What was the point? I thought. I’ll find great friends some day. Probably not women. Women hate me. I’d grown up hearing that. My sister hated me. My one female cousin hated me. My paternal grandmother hated me. All women would hate me. They’d be jealous.
That didn’t make me conceited. It made me self-conscious. I was unlikeable because, according to my mother, no other woman could handle my wit or my looks or my smarts. Except her. She understood me.
But, on the upside, it did hone my sense of humor…a little too sharply…
To be continued….