When I was a little girl, my mom and I used to go to one of her sister’s houses on Sunday afternoons. She would visit with her three sisters and drink coffee, and I would play with my older cousins, play in the yard or read one of the books I brought.
The cousins, 9 and 6 years older than I was, despised me. They loved me in the “She’s an asshole, but she’s family” kind of way. In some ways I deserved it, and in some ways I didn’t.
It took me years to put this feeling into words: My mother cranked up my stress and temper in our pressure-cooker home, then bemoaned my “attitude” to her tsk-tsking sisters. My cousins radiated contempt at me.
And the truth was, I was often selfish and angry. I take ownership of that. But I also have enough compassion for myself to know I was a kid and I also didn’t deserve to be hated.
My cousins and I had some similarities. Their dad died of a sudden heart attack when they were little. So did mine (I was 6). Their mom remarried a man who could be a real jerk sometimes. When I was nine, my mother remarried to the benign town drunk. (Think Otis of Mayberry.)
But there were differences. My cousins were “good girls.” They ate whatever food was put on the table, washed dishes after dinner, and didn’t sass their mom. They made average grades. Their mother bought them what they needed but didn’t overspend, because she was frugal. She didn’t often tell tales or personal secrets to embarrass them. She also had a relatively normal marriage and kept most of her marital issues private. My aunt was not perfect, but she managed her money, her temper and her life well. Their home may have had tensions, but it wasn’t a rambling wreck like mine.
I was a picky eater (couldn’t bring myself to eat tomatoes unless the slimy seeds were scraped out and couldn’t choke down the vile sweet potatoes, turnip roots or cooked greens if my life depended on it). Meals were often tense (and worse when I got nervous and inevitably spilled something). I made nearly perfect grades. I did as few chores as possible, and instead of disciplining, training or motivating me, my mother just complained about me or criticized me, loudly and often. We constantly fought, and I was mouthy and disrespectful. She also considered all parts of my life fair game to interfere with and to discuss with others, from good to bad; if I asked her not to embarrass me, that just meant she would wait until I was almost out of earshot before she would badmouth me, share my secrets or have a laugh at my expense. I felt rootless and alone at home. Our home life was turbulent, with my mother screaming/hitting my stepfather, retreating into her cigarettes and magazines, or complaining endlessly to me while she cried. (Her favorite name for me literally was “My sounding board,” as she often said fondly. I soaked up her stress, like an adult friend would.) However, I was also her only child, and she loved buying clothes and toys for me (more than she should have spent). I also think that she felt guilty about our home life and paid some of that off with purchases.
I was angry and and sad a lot, and I also felt guilty and greedy and lazy and ashamed of who I was. Not just ashamed of bad things I did, or good things I failed to do. Ashamed of the person I was.
What my cousins saw in my mother was the funny/crazy aunt they loved. What they saw in me was a kid who got away with murder and was whiny, rude and useless. When we visited their house, I would see them wash dishes after the meal while I sat at the table, and the two of them would glance coolly at me, share a look and then roll their eyes.
Yes, I should have helped. I wish I had.
I also did a few bad things at their house. It was the late ’60s, and one cousin had decoupaged all the walls of her bedroom with thousands of images that she clipped from magazines and glued to the sheetrock. I can’t imagine why my aunt allowed it, but it was crazy cool. One day, I happened to be in my cousin’s room alone with a Sharpie. (Yes, you are guessing correctly what happened next.) I happened to draw a mustache on the ONE PHOTO of a famous actor she had spent weeks finding in magazines, and she saw it instantly when she got to her room that day. For that, I got her sitting on my back while she pounded my head into the linoleum, yelling, “Say! You’re! Sorry!” as I yelled back, “No (bam!) I’m (bam!) not (bam!)!” My aunt and mother just looked on, nodding sagely, like, “Well, this is what you get.”
Yes, I did a bad thing. And I paid for it. [Edited on 5-26-16 to add: Out of curiosity, I looked up when that movie came out. It was 1968. I was 7, in the second grade. And my cousin was 16. And this beating was allowed. I never realized until now exactly how much my family hated me.]
I also used to read my cousins’ diaries (SUCH a bratty thing to do, I know). I must have been about nine-ish, and they were 15ish and 18ish. Juicy stuff! One of them caught me, and I was in a panic so I locked myself in her room while she banged on the outside of the door. When she called me a name, I got angry and kicked MY side of the door and yelled at her. Of course, it was a flimsy luan door, and when I kicked it the thin veneer on my side cracked all the way from my foot to the top of the door. (That story lasted into my 40s, by which time it sounded like a raging Hulk had slammed his foot through a concrete wall.) I was mortified and remorseful.
Yes, I did break the door. I don’t know if my mother paid for it.
Another time, I was elementary school age and playing on my aunt’s piano at her house. I got bored and asked her for something else to do. She handed me some carbon paper, some blank paper and the tracing wheel from her sewing cabinet, and she showed me how to use it. I closed the cover over the piano keyboard and was happily running the little spoked wheel over the paper, pressing the carbon into the blank sheet and making pretty patterns and the alphabet. No one told me the wheel would go through the paper and damage the piano, or if they did I guess it didn’t sink in. When I lifted the paper to see one big letter X in the wood, I was horrified. I used some spit to cover up the marks, opened the keyboard cover to hide the mess, and moved to my aunt’s marble-topped coffee table instead. My aunt called that night to tell me, quietly, that she didn’t appreciate the piano damage. I apologized and said it was an accident. She didn’t believe me.
Yes, I shouldn’t have hurt her property. And I shouldn’t have tried to hide the damage.
I always wanted to tell them, “I don’t mean to hurt you or your things. I’m sorry for being lazy. And it’s not my fault what my mother spends on me.” But complaining or explaining was always invalidating. They had it worse than I did and they did better at life than I did, so I had no right to complain, my mother was wonderful, and I was ungrateful and awful. Or at least that’s the message I absorbed down to my bones.
And in my experience, people never, ever ask angry misbehaving kids what’s wrong, unless it’s some version of, “What the hell is WRONG with you?!”
Instead, we all just silently agreed that the entire problem was that I was SUCH a spoiled brat. I wore that identity for a long, long time.