Picture by Ryan McGuire

*While I write pure memoir style, it’s not my place to tell the stories of some of the non-fictional characters in my narrative so I will use different names in this one.

“We thought because Kelly was your friend, it would make it easier for you to get involved in sports and activities she signed up for.”

“Whenever you came home from Lara’s house you were brutal to deal with…spoiled and high on sugar. We would have to threaten you that you couldn’t keep going over there if you couldn’t control yourself.”

“Well you said you just don’t do polyester.”

These might be less annoying and tragic to remember hearing several times over the years except that I heard them again last night. It just gets more aggravating the more I hear them.

Until about 6 months ago, I was still carrying the shame of things from my childhood. I didn’t play sports that much so that was wrong. Despite being outside all day, riding my bike, playing with friends, I was an overweight kid which was wrong. I didn’t go along with my parents’ perfect child playbook when I would express emotions or a differing opinion. That was wrong. I cried when I got exasperated trying to explain myself (something which still sometimes happens.). That was wrong. My father could be cold, mean and verbally abusive but I defended myself and talked back to that. I was supposed to understand he was a Vietnam Vet. So, that was also wrong. I asked questions. That was wrong. I had free will. That was wrong. I saw things that weren’t glorious and likable about Kelly sometimes and would try to point them out when I was being compared to her. That was wrong. I most loved Lara and her family. That was wrong. I loved Kelly too but it was different.

I got caught playing doctor. That was VERY wrong. My mother acted as though I was some kind of pervert and this was going to be a dirty secret we would never discuss again – that is was so deviant and absolutely no other child would have been doing that. According to my therapist, most kids do that. Someone recently asked me what the “birds and the bees” conversation was like with my parents or how I learned about sex. I said there never was a conversation. It was just expected we didn’t have sex. One day, Kelly and I were playing at my house (a rarity as my house wasn’t known to be the fun one) and we found my mom’s maxi pads in the linen closet. We didn’t know what they were but we thought they were cool because they were adhesive so we could stick them to things…which we did. They were stuck all over my room when my mom came home and she freaked out on both me and Kelly. She threatened both of us and Kelly went home. Heaven forbid my mom cool off and maybe circle back to ask if I knew what they were for and have a mature conversation about that. Nope. When I had my period for the first time years later, I tried to tell her and she cut me off mid sentence and just said “there are things in the closet.” It was never discussed beyond that.

The fact that my parents continue to go back to their “go to” childhood statements about everything which was my fault or wrong with me makes me think they actually believed that when they tell a child what to do or what not to do, the child would just obey. Every time I fell out of line, they were generally shook and confused. The only explanation they had was that I must have been a highly sophisticated, Machiavellian adult trapped in the body of a child. I controlled the home and if they acted badly it was because I forced them to.

I know it sounds nuts but I hear it on occasion now in reference to my nephew when he errs off the playbook. Suddenly he is really smart or manipulative or somehow mentally fully formed and in full control of his reactions in their minds. I look at him and see he is 4. He has tantrums. He lies. He has ideas about what he wants even if they don’t make sense. He is just trying to figure out who he is in relation to the people and world around him. I don’t think he lies in bed at night scheming against his parents. He reads a book and zonks out the whole night until about 6am. But he does try to figure out during the day how he can get gummy bears or go bowling or not have to do things he doesn’t want to do. Normal child. Sometimes I think my parents truly believe I must have been up at night with scrap paper planning intricate, terrorist attacks that I would strategically play out over a campaign of days. In reality, I was just a misunderstood kid who had to advocate for herself.

When I was with Lara’s family, we shopped. We watched movies and ate candy. We went to the beach. We did beach walks and collected shells. We learned to dig clams with our feet. We went to her grandparents’ house and helped can jelly with her grandfather. We colored. We played Barbies. We talked. If we fell off our bikes, her mom baked us cookies. That didn’t happen at my house or Kelly’s. Lara’s Mom didn’t have a playbook. She let kids be kids. It wasn’t that we were completely undisciplined. We just were allowed to be kids. That wasn’t allowed at my house if it was outside the playbook. The stuff Lara and I did was more my speed. It was more artsy, freeing and cerebral. All the things we both grew up to be.

Another example is when we were college age, Lara’s Mom let us have strawberry daiquiris at their summer house. My mother was horrified by this. It wasn’t her mother’s place to decide I could do that. That’s because my mother believed that underage children shouldn’t drink. Lara’s Mom believed that too but also knew we would do it anyway so she preferred we do it out in the open where we were safe. Sorry, Mom but her mother had the more realistic approach on that one. Your ostrich approach encouraged us to do it in hiding and in ways where we could get hurt or in trouble.

What is really fascinating is how open minded my parents really are in general. Back when my sister was wedding planning my mom did get weird about some stuff. Appearances and tradition are important to her so she wasn’t thrilled my sister wasn’t going to have a DJ or band for her reception. She also wasn’t thrilled with the food station idea and the sliders. I don’t think she ever came out and said it but I think she was genuinely worried about what her 6 friends, invited to the wedding, would think. They would expect a DJ and a plate of chicken. We also had this one really old aunt my mom was worried about. My mother was concerned that this aunt would see my tattoo in my dress. Oh, and her friends would also see it. I had to point out to my mother that all these people were attending a gay wedding. Sliders and tattoos weren’t the most controversial items they would experience. And yet, had any of her friends expressed concern over her gay daughter, she would have walked away from those friendships. She was more worried about what I might say or look like.

Every holiday and family gathering growing up I was told what I couldn’t talk about. Basically, I was being told who I couldn’t be. Who cares if I embarrassed myself? If I didn’t care, why should anyone else? I guess I embarrassed them and that was different.

Last night I said that for the last 20 years I have worked jobs that were expected of me and, in turn, have been stifled and miserable and judged and a Misfit in my life. I have had to apologize for it the entire time. I was supposed to feel embarrassed for being different or seeing the world through a lens different from the majority. I have been treated poorly and humiliated many times at work. Yet I know I have created my own monster of salary dependence and financial responsibilities which cannot be unwound and would allow me to just walk away and take a lower paying job that might actually make me happy. I said I wished in my early 20s I had the self esteem to take a chance and that I hadn’t thought odd jobs like waitressing were beneath me. I should have been ok with scraping by on odd jobs so I could write and pursue that path. That’s where she said “well, you said you don’t do polyester.” Seriously? Not every argument had to be go to college or work at McDonalds.

When their child expresses a distaste for polyester but a dream of being a writer….they just “won” by luckily stumbling on my distaste for tacky service uniforms and let it go. But they had no problem having me wear a polyester uniform at age 14 when I waitressed at the function hall where my dad bartended. Old men grabbed my ass at the tables and that was ok because I was bringing a paycheck into the house at an illegal age. But it wasn’t ok to delve more deeply into helping me work through a “What if?” What if you did try to pursue writing? How would you make a living? How can we help you brainstorm a way to make it work? What if you try it your way for a year and then after that, re-evaluate? You can always still finish college or look for a full time job. Nope. Had to follow the playbook. And stupid me, for once I actually did.

20 years of depression, medication, anxiety, weight problems, discrimination, harassment and a killer 401k later, I am trying to figure out how to do what would have been far easier to adjust to at 20 than now. I still feel like I have to ask permission to leave my current job for another one because my father thinks I am stupid for considering it. In fact, my Masters is now 3 years old and stale because I couldn’t find a comparable salary and benefits package to replace what I would walk away from. So even my Masters has no value now.

I know I sound like some whiny brat who can’t leave her childhood behind. It’s not that, really. I have made peace with so much of it over the years and understand all my actions as an adult are my choices and no fault of anyone else. But I am trying to make sweeping changes to grab back the life I really wanted and see if I can make it work somehow now. As I do that, I have to navigate a lot of insecurities and barriers inside myself to see which ones I have honestly recovered from and which ones are still there despite thinking they were gone. Whenever my parents make commentary on me as a child or notice similar behaviors in my nephew, it takes me back and I get angry. Angry because I know now there was nothing wrong with me as a kid. I was challenging but I was layered and that is so cool. I wasn’t like the other kids. That’s cool. My nephew is ridiculously cool. He is forming his own one man band because of his apt for music, rhythm. He sees the world through different eyes than us. He sees patterns in ordinary places. That’s how I also see things. When I am around him, I make sense. He has such a cool life ahead because his parents are open to all his possibilities and they talk to him. They want to know him. They tried the sports thing with him and it isn’t sticking yet. They are ok with that. They aren’t trying to make him conform. They are just letting him evolve and make sure he gets the space to try anything which fancies him.

My sister recently mentioned to me that she has a new appreciation for our dad’s experience returning from Vietnam. The vets were frowned upon. He had to worry about what people might say to him at parties. He didn’t talk about anything and he stuffed his uniform into the back of the bedroom closet like he never wore it. In recent years, he has talked more openly about his experience and goes to my sister’s school and speaks to the students every Veteran’s Day. Her being gay, she understands what it feels like to compartmentalize your life and keep certain things stuffed away in the closet in order to survive. I also get it as I compartmentalize my life too.

I am part of the same family. My entire life has about being stuffed into a closet or thinking I needed to change or be more like Kelly and all the other Kelly’s out there. Because it would have been easier for me to just be a happy soccer player and cheerleader than a brooding writer who listened to the Cure in my bedroom. I think my parents were terrified I would be “the weird girl” as an adult and my life would be harder than it had to be. Yet, my family fully embraces my sister and dad whose lives are much harder than their peers because of things outside their control. Since when was it in my control about who I would be? Why was it assumed I could or should change? That any difficulties in my life were brought on by me because Childhood time with Lara resonated more with me than playing soccer with Kelly? As if had I continued playing soccer I never would have suffered depression, eating disorders, anxiety. I bet Kelly wouldn’t tell you her life was easier than mine because she played soccer. In fact, of the three of us, I think Lara is the one who is most steadily living life on her terms and achieving her dreams more consistently than Kelly or me. Nobody ever asked her to be someone she isn’t.