I found a solitary letter among my grandmother’s journals. My grandmother, Mim, died when I was 18, therefore, her words are haunting and precious, revealing emotions forgotten and buried. The words typed on yellowing paper held memories captive. It was fragile, no doubt, but had endured perhaps for this moment in time; for this purpose, I can’t help but wonder if it had been saved. The letter was dated march 21, 1988. The first time I discovered this treasure, I carefully unfolded it and read slowly, wanting to absorb every word, each one imperative. I held it gingerly as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls or the original Declaration of Independence. My name in the very first paragraph, brought tears to my eyes.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk with Kim since she got back.” She wrote, “Ordinarily I would be down there getting her breakfast and off to school…”
There I am. I read it over and over again. Each time I saw my name in the opening statement, I felt like, I was a first pick in the NFL draft, I felt my life was connected to someone’s day and time and thoughts, as if I was an important piece to the whole, valued and known, I felt like a precious word, in this antique letter arisen from my grandmothers grave.
Importance and self-worth were not kind to me, as a child.
The letter was addressed to my sisters, Caren and Tammy. It was the three of us from a divided home. I had just turned 10, as they approached the end of innocence. It was a difficult few years for my sisters. They had to move away, and then I was alone. Mim had a hard time with it, she didn’t like my mother’s decision. Life at that time, was as fragile as my grandmother’s letter.
It all seemed to happen quickly, in anger, in a rage, with a fight. I didn’t have time to think. I didn’t dare feel or show displeasure in a complicated, ‘adult situation’, which I was “too young to understand”. It was just mom and I now, and we had to stick together. Although, most often it felt like she was sticking to her boyfriend and I was by myself.
Caren turned 17 the year Mim wrote that letter and tammy 16. In many ways my sisters were Irish twins, both beautiful, artistically talented, funny, and demanding of attention. Caren had long ebony hair with large natural curls that fell to the middle of her back. Tammy, long blonde curls, charming sweet and perfect, as her name states. I took a back seat.
“Rebellion, disobedient, and dis-respectful”, I heard these words often during that time period as my sisters were coming into their own. It was best if I didn’t care, didn’t feel, didn’t show an opinion on the matter, and more or less stayed neutral. I just stayed in the back seat.
My sisters were prime time eighties teens in the generation of big hair, spiked bangs with loads of aqua net, blue eyeshadow, heavy black eyeliner, baggy sweatshirts, and pegged jeans with leather jackets. They wore the trends as if we could afford it, and boy, did it look great on them.
Mom was stressed, the girls had taken up dating older boys, rock music and skipping school. The zenith was when Tammy and Caren spent an overnight with their boyfriends, one in whom my mother had specifically forbidden. It was not the first defiant act but it was certainly the closing scene. This move changed their lives.
Tammy moved out first at 14 because she had no choice, Caren followed her to my Dad’s a few months later. They were too close to live an hour apart. Although, they had no qualms leaving me behind. Both of my sisters were pregnant within 24 months, Mom was 40 years old when my nephews were born.
There was so much happening, I got lost in the blend, passed by, skipped over, forgotten. No one asked me because it wasn’t about me. I assume, no one thought it mattered to me, I wasn’t the ‘troubled one’, the ‘pregnant one’, the ‘rebellious one’, and I wasn’t the problem to solve, and therefore I barely existed. I didn’t want any trouble, I stayed out of the way, quietly playing Barbie dolls and acting out my dreams for a family that stayed together.
First I saw dad go, then Tammy, then Caren, I prayed I wasn’t next or worse mom. Then I would really be alone.
After they left, the house was abnormally quiet, all the time. The bathroom was empty, no more hot curling irons on the sink, no more hairspray coated toilet seats, no more phone cords strung across the kitchen floor for hours on end. No more sisters. The hardest part for me, was sadness, but it took me a long time to say that, to acknowledge my own feelings, to dig up that grave. They were gone, they left me, I missed them, and I was scared and angry. It was hard to sleep at night. When we were younger, mom worked as a nurse overnight, it was just the three of us. After they left I was afraid, afraid that someone would break in, afraid the house would catch fire, afraid to be on my own, the only one left.
Every other weekend, while visiting dad, I would see the girls. I desperately wanted to be with them, to have sisters again, to be part of something bigger than myself, to be connected to a family is not only vital to all mammals growth and development, but especially helpless and frightened children with a blemished past. They had been my unit, my security and then they weren’t. When I would visit Dad’s house, I would sit on their bed in their tiny little room that was splattered with motley crew , pink floyd and led zeppelin posters, while they talked about boys and laughed. I would sit on the toilet seat cover, admiring them- being comforted by their presence, feeling whole, while they sprayed and primped and loaded on make-up for a date. I was happy to be near them again and I watched them, as if they were my favorite show. To them, I was a little sister, with sticky fingers, large awkward glasses, choppy bangs, and void of real thoughts and feelings. But to me, they were gods, and an integral part of my foundation that wasn’t finished being built.
I was hurting but refused to admit it, secretly angry at my mother for kicking them out, but afraid to show it, and disappointed but didn’t know what to do with it and when you push something away enough times, like emotion and truth, it disappears long enough for you to get through with a smile. My grandmother was broken hearted. My mom shut down. It seems, I remember her being in a sad, distant, hard to reach, and irritable. But, I also remember early in the mornings seeing the black streaks of mascara staining her face, I guess make-up doesn’t cover up everything.
My mom was so young at the time, imagine being a grandmother at 40! She had no husband, no job, no money, and two teenage girls that she couldn’t manage. She had a cumbersome past, and she was sitting on two marriages that didn’t work out.
Oh yeah and there was me.
Most people overlooked my state of emotion, “she’s too young to understand, and she’ll be fine” they would say. And then, “she knows better, you know better right Kim?” The pressure that was on me to not do what my sister did, to not follow in their footsteps, was bigger than the fear of being alone or the anger or the pain, and besides if everyone else was disregarding the potential I guess I could too. But ignoring or stuffing emotions doesn’t eradicate the emotions.
On the battlefield when a bomb explodes, tiny metal pieces race wildly about, upon finding a nearby solid mass, they embed themselves into arms and necks and any other exposed body parts. Anything close by. I was close by. I was covered in pieces of the situation and my skin sort of just grew around it. There were parts that grew with me and helped shape me. I learned really well how to suck it up, how to shut down, how to thrive alone. I learned to love the quiet and be independent and to figure things out. I know how to not show emotions and I behaved for a long time as if I didn’t count. I’ve spent years trying to count, trying to be noticed and recognized and all the while praying I wouldn’t be recognized too much. The internal conflict is: “discover me, I’m here – and never mind, nothing to see” or “look I’m valuable, but ignore my faults, because I don’t want to get evicted”. I want to assert myself, but it rubs against the fear of being rejected if I do, and the habit of mildly accepting disregard, and mildly resenting it.”
Disappointed is a great word for how I was feeling. Maybe I hoped my sisters would write to me, a letter with my name, addressed to me because they missed me. Maybe I prayed they would call, or notice I was gone, like I noticed they were. They had each other, I had only them, and then I had no one.
I tried and perhaps succeeded at being what everyone said I was, “the strong one, the good one”
I was the first to wear a cap and gown and receive my high school diploma, it was a maroon gown. Tammy was pregnant with her fourth child by then and working on her second marriage. Caren was absent. And Mim, well, that was the last event I remember seeing my grandmother at. She died a year after I graduated.
I was the first to go to college, I was the first one to get married before getting pregnant, and the only one to stay married. I guess all the Barbie play, paid off.
in some ways , I had become the only child I was forced to be.
Sometimes something happens in life that you have no control over and it creates situations, channels, you couldn’t have planned for or don’t fully understand. I didn’t know what was happening or why, I couldn’t change it, or fix it, but it changed me. I always believed I was forgotten, I didn’t count, and I have carried that through life. Life was about them, the girls, the letters in life were addressed to Caren and Tammy. I believed that I was just an extra in the saga of my sisters; background music, and I was ok with it, because, Hell, at least I got a part. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe Caren and Tammy leaving was for my sake too. Maybe I was the protagonist and they were the supporting characters, I mean shouldn’t we each have the leading role in our own stories. And just maybe there was a bigger plan, a bigger hand was in involved. God’s hand. Leading us, orchestrating events, creating new directions for us all. He knew I needed a path forged uniquely for me. He didn’t leave me alone, he got me alone.
I’m not sure exactly why Mim’s letter tugs so violently at my heart, perhaps because it marks a painful separation, a parting of ways, a ripping and rips hurt, but they aren’t definitively bad. Reading Mim’s letter reminds me of the dramatic change in our lives. The place and time and moment, I went from being an, us, my sisters and I, to being just me, an individual with a blank slate, destined to walk my own path. I was born-again in some ways, travailing is emotional and difficult, but necessary in order to become a separate individual. I have to look at so many things in my childhood that way, sacrifices for the greater good. Deliberately reminding myself not to gaze intently at the raw parts of life, but rather find the blessed outcome, when I do that, I find myself thankful, because the greater good outweighs the greatest pain.