Monday, December 17, 2007

A Blue Christmas With You

I will share a little family history today. I am usually more circumspect. However, for a tiny glimpse into a bit of a why about me and this month, I will share this story. It's never the whole story or the only story, and it's never only about me, the writer. However, I've written it as completely and honestly as possible, although I'll admit to editing a bit out of respect of privacy.

That Christmas I felt ebullient. If emotions could make you glow, I shined brighter than the lights on the tree. I was in love. Big time love, grown-up love. Going to the chapel and gonna get married love. And he had agreed to spend Christmas with me.

I set aside the fears and worries about bringing him home to my extended family. He was so wonderful I knew they'd suddenly morph into the amazing, loving, close-knit and welcoming family I always wished I had. How could they not glow in his presence, too?

This was only the second time I'd brought a man to meet my extended family. The first time it was a friend I loved dearly, and they'd behaved horribly. Why that shocked me I don't know. It was completely within character. My uncle---who lived life baiting traps for people to fall into---did his best to trip up my friend. He disguised his cruelty in teasing, which was a drape as sheer as the Emperor's new clothes. My grandmother---whose personal strength had turned her hard inside and out---felt free to express her very negative opinions and narrow judgments. She disguised it as being honest and well-meaning, carrying forthright and superiority as her banners of virtue.

My friend's good manners and pleasant personality spared the day, except for me. I felt a terrible guilt; I truly had not thought they'd act that way to someone other than me, or someone inside the family. He reassured me that they were horrible, but he was okay. "It only matters to you because you care, and not just about me," he said quickly, "But for some sad reason, you care about them, too. You let them keep breaking your heart. Someday you're going to have to break away or break into a million pieces."

It's true. I was ridiculously optimistic about my extended family, and had been for more than twenty years. Every time they were vicious or thoughtless or both, I was shocked.

Maybe it's good that I continued to be shocked. That means that it never became normal for me. Simply common. And unsurprising.

That optimism and my blithe in-love brain buzz is why I expected that Christmas to be beautiful and bright, just like I felt.

I did warn Jon. He'd heard the stories, had seen evidence of the cruelties and conditional love. He did not walk in blind.

Every day after he agreed to come with me, to my home town, to see my extended family, I prayed, "Please God, let them be kind, let this Christmas be good. Let there be cheer and joy. Let there be kindness and respect. Please. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease."

My Granny always advocated the power of prayer. Surely since she believed and I prayed so hard, she'd get some message from God. And would turn into someone other than who she was.

I'm sure she prayed often for me to be someone other than who I am, too. She had always been hard on me "for my own good." I had spirit, and it had to be broken.

That was her plan for me that year, in 1992, the year I brought home the man I planned to marry: she was going to break my spirit.

Jon and I arrived, shiny and dressed-up. After a deep breath, we walked to the door and rang the bell.

My stepmother welcomed and embraced us warmly. She chattered and caught up with us, gracious. Happy. My younger brother ran to say hello, excited and happy as kids usually are at Christmas. My sister hugged us both, and as usual cracked a joke about being comrades in arms in the presence of our extended family.

If attitudes were awkward and conversation stilted, I attributed it to people trying hard to be pleasant. The strained moments never lasted long; one kid or another would interrupt with a burst of joy and a demand to know how much longer until presents.

Or my stepmother would come around again and ask for one more photo. She took so many gorgeous photos that Christmas. Photos of me and my siblings, me and Jon, all of us together. I look so happy in those photos, so confident with love and cheer.

I have packed away those photos for years, unable to look at them.

(Do you tense up during movies, when you see a happy character skipping around blithely, as ominous music swells in the background? I always fast forward to the bad part, the part where in some way a metaphorical wolf symbolically eats red riding hood. Get it over with. I can't bear to watch joy knowing it's about to be snuffed out.)

The children's wishes were granted and we all gathered in the big circle to distribute and open gifts. As always, an older kid read off tags and the younger kids raced around handing them out. As always, I got distracted by this game, and the kids' excited squeals when a tag with their name was read out. I didn't notice the dwindling present pile, or the lack of any in front of me.

I just kept laughing at the little leap my brother did each time he got a gift to add to his personal pile.

My lack of concern must have troubled my granny.

She clapped her hands for attention. At least that is how I recall it, because the happy buzz died down to silence.

"Julie, Julie, did you see you have no presents?" she called across the room.

I looked around me, "Umm I guess so, that's right, I haven't gotten any yet."

I glanced at my relatives. They would not meet my eyes. They looked down, fidgeted with gifts stacked in their laps. The children froze, able to tell something was going on, but not able to comprehend what.

"There are no more gifts to hand out," she announced smugly, "There are none for you."

"I'm sorry...what? None for me?" I asked, confused.

"That's right, none for you," she confirmed.

"Well, it's okay," I said, feeling a bit stung, despite a lack of expectation, "I didn't ask for anything."

"That's not why. I told everyone that you were to receive no gifts this year. Not even a card."

"But...but why would you do that?" I asked, shocked, baffled, hurt, confused...and on and on. But somewhere, in a core of me, a part laughed in sad triumph at the confirmation of how she felt about me, about who she was.

"It is because you are an Extremely Ungrateful Girl. And I have had Quite Enough of it. You will not receive any gifts ever again until you can prove you are reformed."

"Ungrateful? What? I don't know what you mean," I protested.

"I sent you a check for your birthday and you did not call or send a note, or even acknowledge it in any way. I sent you money! And you said not one thing of gratitude to me."

"A check?" I asked, confused. I'd received no check. I felt Jon grab my hand, with which I had apparently been grasping at his pants at the knee.

Suddenly the sense of unreality left me. I became sickeningly aware that the man I loved was next to me, witnessing this. This is who I come from, I heard the air whisper around me. These are my people. He will run far away fast if he has half a brain, the air whispered again, blood will out.

This was really happening. She was really doing this, and they were really letting her, no, they were going along with it. Did anyone try to throw a blanket over the painful moment, snuff it out?

I felt like laughing, a little hysterically, and a small giggle escaped me, which only enraged my granny further. She ranted for a bit while my brain searched for some logic, some meaning, something solid to grasp...something besides this deranged lunacy.

"Granny," I interrupted, breaking Southern Code Number 4. "Granny," I said again, a little more urgently.

She paused and listened.

"I never got a check. Honestly, I didn't. I'd write a thank you note. I always do. And did the check clear your bank?"

She confirmed it had not, which had only infuriated her more. Now I had not only been ungrateful, but had flat out rejected her and her gift.

"I'm poor, trying to earn a living. I'd gratefully take nickels if someone handed them to me. I never got a check or a card from you. But I understood. I gave you the benefit of the doubt. I didn't cash the check or write a thank you because I never got the card or money. Never got it."

Benefit of the doubt---something I could give, but not receive. It was easier for her to assume something bad about me, easier to think of me poorly, instead of talk to me. It was almost as if she had sought a reason to reach out and punish me.

Her response was to leap up and drag me to her bedroom, where she forced me to stand to the side while she pawed through her overflowing jewelry chest to find a piece she could part with, give to me, as some sort of compensation. She gave me a small and ugly ring studded with half a dozen sapphires.

She pushed me forward into the great room and held up my hand. Everyone made a big show of admiring the ugly ring stuck on my pinkie. In fact, they made too big of a show, as if this ring was worth all of it, as if their overdone enthusiasm for the ring could make up for it all. As if the ring canceled out what had just happened. (I have since pulled out that ring, threatened to wear it as my due, sell it, toss it into a river. But I have done none of these things. Instead, it hides, nestled deep in a drawer, small, ugly, and worth nothing but a bad memory, while I wait for the right idea to come along.)

I stayed for the rest of the party. I forced smiles, chatted with family, and let everyone pretend like it was all okay. I rationalized it...she did what she could, she did her best, she tried to make up for it.

But another little piece of me was left crushed.

One day you will have to break with them or break into a million little pieces.

This is why I haven't spoken to my family since 1993. And believe it or not, it had to get one notch worse for me to make the break. But I did. I preferred that to a million little pieces of me.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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48 comments:

wheelsonthebus said...

Holy sh-t. OK, what she did was crazy and awful. But that everyone went along with it? That is hideous. Good grief. And in front of Jon?!

Emily R

Gina Pintar said...

Holy CRAP! Wow that was nasty. I was expecting snotty and rude but wow that was plain cruel. And for the rest of the family to go along with it?! WHAT?

Glad you got away from that.

Did you say 6 stones? If they are big enough maybe make three sets of earings for you and the girls. Make a new memory and one of bonding.

HUGS. I remember being little and wondering how anyone could be sad during Christmas. Now I am old and know better. My extended family is pretty small, guess I should be greateful for that.

Wright said...

This made me so sad. I am sorry that you had to endure it - but know that it made you stronger. Here's to a very merry Christmas this year!

Wright
www.igottatheory.blogspot.com

Mama Drama Jenny said...

Oh Julie. The part of me that wasn't shaking in rage over this story was bursting with pride that you were able to overcome this without being warped forever.

It takes a truly deep and good person to be able to see people for who they truly are and to not be dragged into the muck of family politics and broken people.

You are an amazing person and I'm so proud to call you friend.

Professor J said...

Wow. I cannot think of what to say. I am glad you now have a family you can trust and love.

Family Adventure said...

Julie. I am just shocked. Shocked and appalled, and I want to hug you and help you pick up those million little pieces.
What an awful, mean, nasty old woman. What a bunch of spineless helpers. Sick is what that is.
Thank goodness you were strong enough to break free from it. I am proud to be your bloggy friend, more so now than I was just 10 minutes ago. You are a strong and brave woman.
Heidi

thailandchani said...

Oh, geez! Are we related? It's such a good thing that you did break away from them. That is a horrible story!

Jeff said...

Wow, what a strange story. If I had seen that in a movie I would have thought it was totally unrealistic and thought the scene was too far-fetched to be plausible.

I hope this estrangement from your family hasn't weighed too heavy on you and your family over the last 15 years.

My question is, have you ever desired a reconciliation with that side of your family or have you been at peace with the way everything has played out? Just curious.

Lori at Spinning Yellow said...

OMG - Julie, that was terrible! I am so sorry that you were treated that way!

Sometimes it takes someone else, a friend, a man, another person outside of our own relatives to give us the strength to see how wrong people can be. You are so strong for breaking free and for finding a partner to support you for the wonderful person you are!

I wish you many happy holiday memories to drown out that horrific one!!

Magpie said...

That is appalling. I'm so sorry, and so glad that you broke away from them.

The ring? Either sell it and do something for yourself with the money, or have a jeweler/craftsperson make you something new - a phoenix rising from the ashes.

dharmamama said...

Julie -

I am speechless and aghast. My heart is aching for the you of 15 years ago. I can't believe your family went along with your grandmother's insanity... well, I *do* believe it, but it's very painful to think about. I'm proud of you for breaking that cycle of abusiveness. Big hugs.

You are an awesome, amazing woman! I'm so glad you use your words.

AuthorMomWithDogs said...

So glad you broke free!

Sober Briquette said...

Julie, my wish for you would be that, just as you have finally told this story, you will finally get rid of that stupid ring.

Thank God Jon was there with you, that you didn't have to face it alone. It must have made such a difference in your ability to move forward.

It's not easy to break away from what we know, even when we know it's not right, even when it hurts us.

Here's to beautiful family memories for you and your girls.

Mary G said...

The story was so well told. Wonderful. It's a sad tale, but not as horrible as it could be if you weren't so clean and free of it.
I gave a similarly hurtful ring to my daughter and she had the stones reset. The new one looks lovely on her hand and makes her happy.

Virtual hugs!

dharmamama said...

If two hobbits happen by, you can see if they'd be willing to make a trip to Mount Doom for ya.

Julie Pippert said...

Thanks to everyone for such nice and supportive comments. :) I will have a merry Christmas. I usually finish fighting the forces of evil early in the month so by the time the day comes around, I've settled down and enjoy our family time.

My husband is taking the whole week off next week (a whole week!! off!! at home!! I've already started my Home Depot list, and the paint is lined up for the upstairs. I noticed he already got busy with a few things such as replacing the doorknob and putting up new wall plates...)

I've been purging my house of stuff. This is annual. It's like therapy only cheaper and really, really useful.

Gina, I like the something special for me and the girls idea (out of the ring). It's hard though. I might have to burn the ring first to purify it or something. I am loathe to even let it touch my children.

Symbolism and superstition and all that.

I did break free and am happy to report I am not a Law & Order episode of a serial killer who hunts blue haired old ladies called Granny. I'm just a suburban hippie soccer mom. And I'm cool with that.

But do I miss the family?

I'll answer Jeff's ten million dollar question in a bit.

ALM said...

Wow.

Julie Pippert said...

Jeff asked:

My question is, have you ever desired a reconciliation with that side of your family or have you been at peace with the way everything has played out? Just curious.

Jeff, more than anything I wish my extended family was a warm, loving, close-knit group of people who loved me for who I am. I don't ask for perfection, just a group that manages to care, even though there are bumps in the road and warts on the frog and all that.

In fact, who care and love because...not in spite of. And who love freely, not out of obligation.

Or a little less toxicity, maybe?

At peace with it?

I accept it. I'm not sure that's the same thing as peace. It is what it is. I've forgiven/am forgiving (because it's not a one shot deal, is it? when you've been harmed ongoing over a long time...new things crop up at different times). I'm also not sure that's the same thing as peace.

But I guess, yeah, as much as one can with this, I am at peace.

It's like having someone you love die. You'll always grieve what you lost. It just assumes a different position, and pops up less and less often as you get more and more used to going about without that person.

It pops up for me at holidays, when I get very anxious, because that's when most of it happened. It's still hard to convince my nerves that it's over.

It pops up for me when other people talk warmly and lovingly about their families, or express how sad they feel when a grandparent passes on.

It pops up when someone relates a beautiful, sentimental story about grandparents or extended family and special times and gifts those people shared, such as poetry or something.

I think about my people and I feel a little grief, but by now it's just a shade of it and passes quickly.

When I get sentimental, or optimistic, or my sister is visiting with the extended family (she has stayed in touch)...I think about it. I think it's human to.

But then my sister will relate some story and to her she's just telling a tale, but for me, I hear red flags.

My father and stepmother used to encourage me to reconcile with the extended family. And I thought about it more back then. But they've stopped that since being excommunicated themselves.

My disowned bench is getting a little crowded. If I wait long enough everyone will end up over here with me. ;)

At the end of the day, one truth is clear: they haven't changed, my extended family. They are still who they are. And who they are doesn't leave space for me to be who I am, not without a price I'm not willing to pay.

So no, no plan for reconciliation.

Michele said...

Julie, I am so sorry you had to go through so much pain. Families can be awful ... trust me, I feel your pain. I haven't spoken to my sister since 2004 when she told me she hoped me and my Jew husband rotted in Hell. She was always an awful person and for me, that was the straw. I'm proud of you for being able to walk away. Life is too short to put up with crap like that.

Kathryn said...

You are an amazing, strong, beautiful person on the inside and out, and it is all on your own accord. You are a rose among weeds. No matter how the weeds tried to suffocate you, you muscled through and created a beautiful life for you and your family.
There is freedom in knowing that we are not who our family members are. We should not suffer for their wrongs, nor make them our own. You were right to get out.
Thank you for sharing such a personal story, and giving us more insight into who you are. It is an honor.
Big hugs to you.

Yolanda said...

Wow. That is such a harsh message of unworthiness, I don't know how you ever unwrite it. That you can even look at a wrapped present, a lit tree, or a sapphire ring without screaming and tantruming is a great testament to your very uncrushed spirit, and an immense strength.

I think it's time to give that ring a funeral, though. It would be nice if it actually could be turned into something beautiful, but I don't know that anything attached to that memory ever can be made sweet and precious. But I don't think it does anything good for you to keep it around. (At least, I know it wouldn't be good for me.)

The Callipyian Chronicle

melissa said...

Whew. That was, I don't even know how to express it. My grandmother was bat-s--t crazy, too, but wow.

But, it's over now and you can make all new memories with your real family.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Aren't people weird? How odd of your family to let that old lady boss them around like that - but dysfunctional families are dysfunctional together - it's a symbiotic relationship. I have stories of my own to tell, believe me.

But aren't your girls such a healing experience? I was scared to have kids, scared that I would repeat what I had experienced. But no such thing happened - each child just taught me that I am lovable and good and I don't need to worry about people who aren't.

Karen said...

Julie, Julie - how sad and awful - and I'm happy you disowned them and you are in one piece. I'm sorry it had to get worse - that's hard to imagine - and isn't it amazing to find someone to face that with you and not run (yeah! Jon!). Whatever you left out, whatever inspires you to protect them even a little bit, is an amazing quality of forbearance you have there friend.
Merry Christmas indeed! With the family you chose, created and cherish. I think you should start a gag with the ring, whoever gets disowned next gets to hold it until the next person to be disowned needs a chance.

Kyla said...

*whistles* That is an experience to READ, I'm sure it was quite a bit more to LIVE. Wow. I must say, you've turned out lovely, in spite of their ugliness.

another good thing said...

Wow. I am so sorry. And I totally understand. After FORCING my husband to reconcile with family as ill- fitted for social niceties as yours, we were ousted after a misunderstanding just about as petty. They thought we knew his Mom was hospitalized and we purposely never wrote, called or visited. Problem was, no one bothered to tell us a few hundred miles away. The father wrote us off- never met his grandchildren- even forcing the mother to lie to us as he lay dying so that my husband would have no opportunity to make amends. My husband slipped a well- worn watch into the cold man's casket telling him, for the time we never had.
The mother is now part of our faminly, calling, emailing and visiting and makes no excuses for the things she did to please her husband- a man who missed out on so so much.

Suz said...

I'm so sorry that all of this happened to you. Batsh&^t crazy doesn't begin to describe it.

Jeff said...

Great answer Julie. Thanks for obliging my question so thoroughly with so much heart and emotion. I hope you have a warm and beautiful Christmas.

flutter said...

But see how you are breaking the cycle?

Cathy said...

Oh, Julie.

I think I'm most horrified by the fact that other family members went along with her ... "lesson."

You did the right thing. Absolutely.

I'm still reeling. What cruelty.

Mary Alice said...

I haven't read all the comments, but I just wanted to say, wow. I am so sorry. Your story caught be like a punch in the stomach.

I don't get how people who are so crazy can be be surrounded by people who act like everything is NORMAL. I have had experiences myself where I look around and think...can't anyone else see that this is not normal, is not healthy, is not right?

You are better off staying out of the way and creating your own happiness. Thank goodness you found a good man who loved you for who you were and did not judge you for your family.

Lawyer Mama said...

Oh, Julie. ((HUGS)) You rock, sweetie. To be able to separate yourself like that takes a lot of inner strength.

I can really relate to this post. Not necessarily the overt cruelty, but the manipulation and the mind games, yes. It's never a fun way to live and at some point you have to say, "Enough!" Good for you.

bubandpie said...

Wow.

Will we get the sequel?

theotherbear said...

Holy cow, what a cruel old woman. I'm quite speechless.

Anonymous said...

*hugs* I can see your strength from here. :^) Merry Christmas.

anne at annenahm.com

ALM said...

You know... I've been mulling this around in my head most of the day... and what gets me is that they all made a concerted effort to do this... and how awfully, awfully hurt you must have been. I just cannot imagine.
And, like all your other commenters mentioned - how amazing that you had the ego strength to realize it was not you - but them - and break away.

painted maypole said...

oh julie. ack. there is no way to express how sorry i am you had to endure that, and, apparently, worse

slouching mom said...

oh, julie.
oh, friend.
i'm awfully sorry.

Hope said...

I come from that, too. I hope you have a lovely Christmas.

Andrea said...

What a horrible story. Good for you, for coming out of that whole.

Andrea

Wayfarer Scientista said...

oi! That's terrible. And my advice on the ring? Get rid of it...I just stumbled over some things when packing my house that brought me to the bottom, things I had hidden like that. And you know what? The only thing they do is bring you back to that place and you don't need that; guilt jewlery. I'm glad you left them.

niobe said...

I didn't realize we belonged to the same family.

ewe are here said...

I'm speechless. Just speechless.

All I can think is that I'm so glad you escaped a family filled with so much cruelty and cowardice, cruelty on the part of your grandmother, and cowardice on the part of your family for allowing it to happen.

I'm so sorry.

Margaret said...

I have nothing to say. Amazng story. Sad.

b*babbler said...

Oh sweetie - my heart breaks into a thousand pieces for you and I feel your pain and anger and embarrassment. My Nana, who I have written about, was cut from the very same cloth. I, unfortunately, have too many stories just like this one, stored away in the dusty attic of my mind.

reddirtroad said...

Wow. I'm a little late with this but... holy CRAP!

Sounds to me like you are much better off without a family like that. It's sad... yes... but that story just knocked my socks off. I can't believe how awful that Grandmother was.

Mad Hatter said...

What a terrible story, Julie. I'm not all that surprised by your grandmother. I had a similar battle-axe in my family. What I am flattened by is the fact that no one took your side, no one doubted the reliability of the mail, no one whispered to you that this old woman is a cross that everyone was trying to bear. That is what was so heart-wrenching in this story.

Momish said...

Oh Julie, I am about to cry over the fact that you had to live through such an ordeal. It pains me when everyone excuses terrible behavior people someone is "old". I wish your extended family members could have found the strength to stand up to this one person. This obviously mean person.

I can totally understand why you have made the split. You are wonderfully whole as you deserve to be!