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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