Jerri shared what a nice visit she had with you and JM a few weeks ago. It’s got to be inconvenient for Dad to pick her up in High Point and get her back in time for the return train. But I also believe JM will be a stronger, healthier adult if he grows up knowing his mom loves him despite her disabilities. I’m sure that’s what you want for him as well.
Jerri said you commented recently you knew I was angry and you’d made a lot of mistakes when I was in high school. But that you and Dad had “loved me so much my freshman year that you drove to the college every weekend and brought me back home.” Every single one.
Huh. That’s not the way I remember it. What I remember is posting ads on the bulletin board in the student union, “Hey, anyone going near Winston-Salem for the weekend?” and bumming rides with total strangers so you would not HAVE to pick me up. I remember you urging me on the phone to try and find a ride “’cause it sure was a long way for you to come.” I remember spending many weekends at school because I couldn’t find a ride or I didn’t have money to share gas or I just didn’t want to beg.
And just to check my memory, I asked Stan, “do you remember my parents coming to get me every weekend from Gardner-Webb?” He said, “We bummed a lot of rides with other people. They had to pick us up from somewhere but we always got as close to Winston as we could.”
It’s interesting that you would remember “loving me so much” my freshman year. That was the year you called and asked for my house key because you’d made Jerri give up hers (after robbing you) and “it was only fair.” That’s also the year you called the school and told them to apply my work study income to my tuition. Without consulting me. I went to pick up my check and was informed of your directions. We agreed when I chose Gardner-Webb that I would pay half and I was doing so, already, through scholarships. Apparently, you felt my share should be more. On top of the fact that I saved up my money all summer, every summer, to cover my books and living expenses. You never offered to help me out financially, even when I lost down to 98 lbs and was clearly not getting enough to eat. If that’s what “loving me so much” looks like then I’d have to say, yeah, you almost loved me to death.
Just felt the need to set that record straight.
In his book Soulprint, Mark Batterson writes:
“But I think it’s generally true that we are largely shaped by a small handful of experiences. . . Collectively, they form our internal operating system. They are the source code that determines the way we look at life. And if you’re going to discover your soulprint, you need to mine your memory for those defining moments.”*
I’m currently on a mission to discover myself. Call me crazy, but I feel like I tried so hard to please my mother as a child and young adult, that I lost an essential part of who I am. Subconsciously I suppressed that part because it didn’t appear to match up with what Mom wanted in a daughter.
From the moment I first breathed air, I think I was watching and listening. I entered a world where Mom was at odds with my sister. She wasn’t happy with anything Jerri did. The constant criticism threw me into survivor mode. I must have sensed my spirit couldn’t take it if Mom turned on me the same way so I tried desperately to be all those things she criticized Jerri for not being. Smart, good, well-mannered, obedient. If I could just be the daughter she wanted then she would love me. Or so I thought.
BTW, it didn’t work. And now I’m just totally screwed up.
So how do I find me? Good question. It’s not like I need to quit my job and backpack Europe for 6 months (although that would be AWESOME). I mean, I was standing right here when I lost me. The real me must be around here somewhere. She couldn’t have gotten that far.
Why is this so important? Why can’t I just go with who I am now? Because I want to live an authentic life. I want to narrate my own story in first person. To allow my mom or anyone else to narrate my story for me is to live a secondhand life. And that is just sad.
I want to be the person God intended. He put a lot into making me the person that I am. To reject that is like telling a kid his finger-painting sucks. When in fact, it’s a masterpiece when seen through his eyes. You have to embrace your true identity if you are going to fully experience all that God has for you here on planet earth. And I want the full experience. Because I can’t get my money back.
So I’m following Mark’s suggestion and mining my memories. Here is my earliest one. It feels somewhat prophetic.
I’m standing on the banks of a creek with my sister and Sammy. I can’t see Sammy’s face, he’s behind me, but in all my memories of him, there is no face. There’s no head actually. It’s like I’m so small and he’s a giant beanstalk rising so high into the sky that his head is obscured by the clouds. So I don’t remember what he looks like. I know, however, that his skin is coffee-colored and creased with wrinkles – he is Marshallese – and he’s dressed in the khaki uniform of a U.S. marine.
Sammy, an old bachelor, takes care of us from time to time. Maybe more frequently. Okay, a lot. So often in fact that my earliest memories, all of my Kwajalein memories, are of him and of Jerri. (We lived on Kwajalein, one of the Marshall Islands, until I was about four.) My parents are mysteriously absent.
In my memory, there’s a bridge made of concrete blocks to my left. The creek runs under it and the arch is tall enough that Jerri and I can almost stand up and walk through. Jerri is near the bridge, crouching down in a cotton one-piece that ties at the shoulder and has elastic around the leg holes. She’s near the water’s edge picking up pebbles along the sandy bank. Her hair is mid-cheek-length and golden from the sun. It’s thick with a slight wave to it and held back on one side with a sky-blue barrette. The creek, itself, is pretty shallow, maybe a foot deep and about five across.
It’s like being in a Peanuts movie where the adults are represented by only the “mwah mwah mwah” of their voices off camera. Sammy’s voice is behind me.
Electrocuted. How do I understand the meaning? I’m at most three. Somehow I do. I hear his words as if spoken by God. “Do not touch your hand to the waters of the creek lest the eels electrocute you and you shall surely die.” My chest flutters and my hands start to quiver.
“Come back, Jerri. Don’t go there!”
She tilts her head and laughs as she crabwalks closer to the stream. She is, maybe, four. She holds her hand out over the water, eyes sparkling, two rosy circles in the middle of her cheeks, smirking back at us.
“Be careful now, Jerri.”
Sammy’s warning only makes her more daring. She is fearless, my sister. Stupid, yes, but completely without fear. She is the most fearless person I will ever know. She dips her hand in the water.
The eels are going to get her. I know this with every fiber of my being. She’s going to die unless I save her. It’s all up to me. She’s my responsibility. It’s the very first thought I can remember.
*Excerpt From: Batterson, Mark. “Soulprint.” Multnomah Books, 2011-01-18. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright. Check out this book on the iBookstore: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/soulprint/id420449517?mt=11”
A few weeks ago, I mentioned my desire to write a memoir about sisterhood and sanity. The concept isn’t well-developed but I imagine it as a series of essays, some from childhood and some current day, that as a whole illustrate the complicated relationship which exists between sisters. Here’s a sample. This is a little lengthier than what I typically post. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated!
The doorbell rings and Jerri and I race Fluffy to the front door. He jumps up, propping himself against one of the skinny windows that frames it. On his hind legs, he is bigger than me. Mom has shaved his face, paws and a section of his tail leaving a Pom-Pom of white hair at the end. He looks ridiculous, like a sissy, like we ought to call him Jacque or Pierre la Poo. Jerri shoves him aside and opens the door a crack. She plugs it with the left side of her body so I have to stand on tippy toes to see who is out there.
Fluffy, back on all fours, tries to wedge his face between her waist and the door frame. I grab his collar and dig in my heels. Fluffy is a runner and with us in control of the door, he can practically taste freedom.
Uncertainty flashes across the face of the kid standing on the other side. He is short and barefoot with a snotty nose and a scab about the size of a silver dollar on his left knee. His blonde hair is in a buzz cut. He stands on our porch with his feet apart and his hands on his hips. He lifts his chin and squints at us.
“I’m Michael Nadifer. That there is my house,” he points to the house on the corner where the “For Sale” sign used to be. “My daddy is a police officer.” He puffs out his chest.
Crap. I wanted a girl. One my age. This neighborhood already has too many boys and Jerri has claimed Dottie and Martha as her own.
“Whoop de doo,” Jerri stretches to her full height and looks down on him. “Whaddya want?”
“I said my daddy is a police officer. What’s your’un do?”
“None of your bees wax.” (Which is to say neither of us actually know.) “Why don’t you run along home now?”
“I can stay if I want. My daddy owns this here house–he’s a police officer. He owns this whole neighborhood.”
“Your daddy does NOT own this house. My daddy does. Just ’cause he’s a police officer – don’t mean squat.” Jerri crosses her arms and gives him the evil eye. Fluffy senses an opportunity and tugs harder.
“How old are you?” I holler from behind the dog.
He ignores me and raises up on tippy toes, eye-to-eye with my sister. “Does too! He has a gun.”
“Then why don’t you go home and play with it?” Jerri slams the door in his face. I let go of Fluffy and massage the palm of my hand.
“Who was it?” Mom yells from the kitchen.
“The new kid from the house on the corner,” Jerri hollers back.
“Does he want a Popsicle?”
“No!” She opens the door a crack to see if he’s still there. He is and sitting on the steps as if he lives here. She closes the door again.
“Snot-nosed brat!” It takes me a minute to realize she doesn’t mean me.
I walk into the kitchen. The counter tops are covered with foil-wrapped food, condiments, and stacks of tupperware. Mom, in her orange rubber gloves, is scrubbing the inside of the avocado green refrigerator which stands completely empty.
“Mom, that kid says his dad owns our house because he’s a police officer and now he’s sitting on our porch and he won’t leave.”
“Oh, well, just ignore him, honey. He’ll go away eventually.” Her voice emanates from the bowels of the vegetable crisper.
I walk back into the hall. Jerri is sitting in the bay window in the living room which overlooks the porch.
“Mom says ignore him.”
She doesn’t look at me. I climb up beside her and peer out the window. Michael Nadifer stands up and walks off across our front yard to his house. Jerri goes to her room and returns with a notebook and a pencil in hand and her binoculars strung around her neck. She’s been reading Harriet the Spy. She climbs back onto the window seat, lifts the binoculars and scribbles in the notebook. I try to read over her shoulder and she hunches up, covering it with her other arm.
Michael Nadifer walks back across our yard. He’s carrying an armful of stuffed animals which he positions on our porch. He sets the Hamburgler and Ronald McDonald on the floweredy plastic cushions of the wrought iron love seat. He places a big, dirty Snoopy and a yellow dump truck on the glass topped table. He disappears across the yard again.
Jerri jumps up and and out the front door. I watch from the bay window as she picks up the Hamburgler and examines its face. She sets it back down and surveys the rest with hands on hips. Glancing across the yard, she comes back in the house.
Michael Nadifer crosses the yard with another armful. This time there’s a GI Joe in full camouflage, a sock monkey, and a green alligator with mouth open and a full set of white felt teeth. He disappears again.
“Mom! He’s putting all his toys on our porch!”
“Just ignore him, dear!”
Jerri’s mouth is a grim line. What’s wrong with Mom anyway? Doesn’t she know anything about kids? Doesn’t she know this means war?
Michael Nadifer makes two more trips. Jerri nibbles the eraser then scribbles furiously in her notebook.
“What are we gonna do?” I ask her.
Out on the front porch, she fills my arms with Michael’s stuff and then fills her own. I follow her across the yard and then across the dirt road that runs between our house and his, which is Lancelot Drive, a name almost as ridiculous as Fluffy’s haircut. We dump the stuff at his front door.
The screen door slams on the house next door and Nathan walks over laughing his guts out. He points to his front porch and cracks up all over again. There are toys covering the rockers and sitting on the front steps. Tears squeeze out of the corner of his eyes. He falls to his knees and holds onto his sides.
Honestly. How much crap does this kid own?
“He says,” Nathan gasps for breath, “he says his Dad–his Daddy is a police officer and he, and he owns my, he owns my house!” Nathan collapses on his back in another spasm and wipes at his eyes with the back of his sleeve.
We spend the next hour launching toy bombs from Nathan’s porch into Michael Nadifer’s yard.
We hate him, Jerri and me. It’s the first time we’ve been united in hate. It’s the first time we’ve been united in anything besides our mutual dislike of each other. Jerri is the kind of sister that makes you wish you were an only child.
Jerri tells Dottie about Michael Nadifer. Dottie hasn’t yet had the pleasure. She lives down the hill at the end of Malabar Drive. We are riding our bikes up and down Lancelot. At Sheraton Park, we make a u-turn, peddle fast to Michael Nadifer’s house and then coast down the hill to Malabar. We make a u-turn and climb the hill peddling standing up. Jerri, Dottie, and me. I get to ride bikes with them now. Since Michael Nadifer moved into the neighborhood.
Every summer, Mom pays some men in a big truck to spray oil on Lancelot. She says the cars driving back and forth stir up the dust and it seeps into our house and coats the furniture. She tries to enlist the neighbors support to finance the oil coat. Some years she’s successful and Lancelot gets oiled all the way to Martha’s house. This year, the oil stops at the left edge of our lawn, right before Michael’s house. The Nadifer’s did not want to chip in.
I plop back down on the groovy yellow and green flowered banana seat of my Sear’s bike and raise my feet off the pedals as I cross the oil line. Michael Nadifer’s head pops up from the ditch between his house and Lancelot and he pummels us with gravel. Standing up, we pedal hard to Sheraton Park where we make a u-turn. As we near his house again, Michael Nadifer rushes up and out of the ditch in an ambush, brandishing a stick like a blade. He pokes it into the spokes of Dottie’s front wheel. Jerri and I slam the brakes and skid to a stop as Dottie’s bike flies end over end in slow motion. Dottie crashes onto the un-oiled portion of Lancelot. When she stands, the entire side of her left leg is bloody and encrusted with gravel. Her face is smeared with dirt. Tears well up as her lip starts to quiver. There ain’t nothing Dottie hates worse than to cry like a girl.
We pelt Michael with dirt clods and gravel, anything we can get our hands on. It’s three against one, he’s losing and he knows it. Desperation makes him bolder.
“Aghhhhhhhhhhhh!” Like a Kamikaze, he lifts a melon-sized boulder overhead and attacks. Just yards from us, he hurls it and hits me square in the gut, knocking me over like a bowling pin. Jerri and Dottie nail him with gravel until he cries like a baby, tucks tail, and runs home to Mommy.
“Dorotheeeeeeeey!” From the bottom of the hill, comes the high-pitched yodel of Virginia, Dottie’s mom. She limps over to her bike, mounts it, and picks out a few pieces of gravel from her leg. “Gotta go,” she says wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
Tears run down my dirt streaked cheeks as I lift my striped tank to watch the purple bruise spread cross my tummy. Jerri leans over to get a closer look.
“C’mon,” she says. “We’re telling Mom.”
Inside, we find Mom in the kitchen with a sink full of green beans floating in water. She’s snapping off the ends and breaking the beans into sections which she tosses into a pot.
“Momma, look what Michael Nadifer did.” Jerri lifts my shirt. Mom dries her hands on her apron and squats down on her knees to take a look. She looks at me and then at Jerri. Slowly she rises and returns to the sink.
“I see, ” she says. “And what, may I ask, did you do to provoke him?”
We are out on the front porch, on the cast-iron loveseat, swinging our feet which don’t quite reach the ground, incredulous that Mom will do nothing. I am crying in earnest now, heartbroken at being so wrongfully accused.
“Come with me,” Jerri says. I know she means business because she takes my hand. We cross the yard and then Lancelot. We take a right on King’s Court and then into Michael Nadifer’s driveway. Jerri marches resolutely, chin held high. I lag behind, feeling bashful, head down and thumb in my mouth. The police car is in the drive. Jerri tugs me up the steps behind her and rings the doorbell. Michael’s mom opens the door.
“M’am, we were riding our bikes back and forth on Lancelot and your son picked up a big ole rock and threw it at my sister.” She lifts my shirt. “See?”
Michael’s mom’s eyes narrow. She turns and hollers back into the house, “Michael did you hit this here girl with a rock?”
“No, Momma,” he snivels.
She turns back. “He says he didn’t do it.”
My sister sweeps her hand toward my stomach. “Clearly, he did.”
Mr. Nadifer, still in uniform, appears behind her. “What’s this?” he asks.
Jerri repeats her story. Mrs. Nadifer silently excuses herself and vaporizes back into the house. Mr. Nadifer examines my bruise, studies our faces, and begins unbuckling his belt.
“MICHAEEELL” he thunders and shuts the door. Just before it closes, we hear Michael wailing in the background. “I didn’t do it, Daddy. I didn’t!”
Jerri bounces as we walk back over to our yard. “Boy, is he gonna get IT!”
She tousles my hair and scoops up her bike which has been lying in the road all this time. With a running start, she hops on, giving a three-finger salute over her shoulder as she coasts down the road toward Dottie’s house.
Uprighting my own bike, I pause for a second to watch my big sister ride off into the sunset.
I am not a Scrooge. I may say a lot of Scrooge-like things around this time of year but that’s only because I, too, am haunted by the Ghost-of-Christmas-Present and the Ghost-of-Christmas-Past. So much so that some years I host my own personal little Occupy Christmas movement to protest the bastardization of a season meant to be a celebration of the coming of the Christ. I don’t put up a tree or send cards or string lights. I don’t play carols or give gifts or make sausage balls or gingerbread or hot spiced tea. This doesn’t actually solve anything but as the song says, “whatever gets you through the night” or the unbearably long over-commercialized holiday season that appears to begin some time immediately preceding Halloween.
This, apparently, is not one of my Occupy Christmas years as I’ve already hung lights on the decks of the beach house, attended a Mannheim Steamroller concert, and stocked the Frig with eggnog. Still, the Ghosts are hovering and the days are filled with reminders of why I find this season to be so noxious.
This week the Ghost-of-Christmas-Present introduced me to the lady seated to my right at Shrek the Musical. As I was squeezing my way past and back to my seat after intermission, she leaned in and said, “You’re tapping your heels to the music, I’m sure you don’t even realize, but could you possibly stop? It’s bothering me.”
Seriously? One has to wonder what she was even doing at a show like Shrek. Does she sound like the kind of person who would be entertained by public farting to you? (Afterwards, I impersonated her using the voice of Gingy the Gingerbread Man and felt ever so much better.) Being a notorious people pleaser, I did cease the tapping and the earth miraculously resumed its rotation around her.
The Ghost-of-Christmas-Present is after my sister too. In mortal dread of the holiday, she asked Bryce, her psychiatrist, to add Lamictal to her bipolar cocktail. I had to break the news to Jerri over Thanksgiving that she couldn’t spend Christmas at the beach with us because Stan’s brother and family are scheduled to visit. I feel incredibly guilty when she has to spend Christmas alone. She’s had to do that most years over the past two decades because she’s purposely excluded from family gatherings. So am I, but to be honest, for me its mostly a relief.
The Ghost-of-Christmas-Past has started whispering in my ear, reminding me that the event that shredded our family fabric occurred the Christmas Stan and I tried to treat everyone to a week at the Outer Banks. She reminds me of all the sadness and confusion at Christmas I endured as a child due to mom’s depression and overcompensation for parenting sins throughout the rest of the year. She reminds me that it was Christmas when I first realized my parents were never going to love me, no matter how hard I tried, that they really didn’t even understand the word, let alone, the emotion. The-Ghost-of-Christmas-Present chimes in and says, “They’ve totally replaced you and Jerri with her children. They have a new family now. They don’t even miss you.”
Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!
This year I refuse to listen. I also refuse to kill myself trying to have the BEST Christmas EVER. I refuse to feel guilty because I can’t make Jerri happy. I give myself permission to do the things that I can manage, to spend as much time alone as I need, to celebrate with people who may not be my blood relatives but are family all the same.
Tonight is the first night of Advent. And even through I’m not Catholic, or Lutheran, or any Protestant faith that traditionally celebrates Advent, tonight I will light a purple candle and read Isaiah 9 about the Light of the World who has penetrated the darkness. I will remember again how Israel longed for the birth of its Messiah and I will savor the longing in my own heart for His return.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.