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Where I Am From: A Tough Girl Memoir (Part 4)

If I had not developed the keen sense of awareness, the exceptional sensitivities, and the wisdom through exploring and experiencing every version of myself, as well as each character within my novel or epic movie, I would not be as capable of understanding that adversity motivates all of us to invent and imagine new scenes of our lives. Sometimes, reforming our characteristics and personalities, revising them to reflect the vision of ourselves that helps us to progress and evolve, is the only way we can overcome adversity.

If I had not naturally been curious and observant, I would’ve believed that my dumb, abusive mother was right about me, every time she said that I was untalented, unworthy, a little snob or cunt. If I had believed her, and ignored my fantasies, suppressed them like she tried to suppress me, she may have approved of me, cared whether I lived or died, and I would never had to write the scene in my story where I leave my little brother behind, alone and vulnerable, afflicted, trapped like a rabbit in a hunter’s cage. My survivor’s guilt would never have manifested, though I wouldn’t have a bachelor’s degree, be married to the love of my life, traveled all over the country and overseas, befriended some of the most amazing and beautiful characters, and learned that I am so many people, but I am not my mother.

Twenty-two years later, when my estranged mother found me on Facebook, I don’t feel guilt or regret or longing for my mother. I never liked her. I never approved of her. She wasn’t the mother I deserved, and I had made that decision at such an early age that I suppose she sensed the rejection. Maybe, my mother hated me more than she appeared to dislike my brother, because she sensed that I would not allow her to corrupt me, transform me into the darkness of her dreams. Maybe, she was jealous of me, somehow blaming me for her defeatism and failures. Her life, as I observed it, was far from fantastical or illustrious, though she used my brother and I as her personal audience, anytime she wanted to stage her rage and boiling frustrations. I cannot sympathize with or rationalize a mother’s mistreatment of her children out of sheer envy, but I can imagine that a character possesses such a strong, yet strange, sensibility for someone they have assumed themselves superior.

Maybe, she looked at me and saw my absent father, a man who never even met me, except for a moment when I was five years old and met him at the door, only to be briskly escorted away by my grandmother. One glance up at him, and a vision of the tall man in the black van cascaded my thoughts. By the way my grandmother angrily shooed him away like a rat on our doorstep, I assumed he was someone, my father or not, that could only do more damage to my already puzzling childhood, yet the mystery of him never left me.

Even now, that strange, dream-like scene of me in my Cinderella pajamas, standing near the doorway where my grandmother told me to stay, as if she were defending sovereign ground, dares me to ponder what could’ve been had I known who he really was, the rat, the sweaty man groping the monster, or something less malevolent, more benign, someone who could’ve helped me balance on the line between love and fear. For my mother, both my father and I may have represented stupendous feelings of rejection and humiliation. Shame may have taken hold of my mother, caused her to come unhinged, like Martha in the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, and perhaps she unintentionally, permanently transformed into a villainous character, like the character Joan Crawford played, the ruthless Queen Bee, Eva Phillips.

I do not remember kisses and cuddles, or consolations after falling off of my bike. To my best recollection, there were no supportive sentiments, like “Congratulations!” or “I hope you do well on your test, sweetie.” Contrarily, my mother systematically eliminated everything about my life that caused me a sense of self-worth, love, and desire. Whether it was friends, designer clothes that my grandparents and aunt bought for me, or my favorite Cabbage Patch doll, if I loved it, she would find a way to unjustifiably punish me by cussing out my friend’s parents, or destroying my belongings by throwing out everything inside of my drawers, bookcases, and closet, crushing and spitting on my clothes, books, porcelain dolls, hand-made carousels and musical jewelry boxes. She’d often throw these tantrums while I was at ballet class or at a friend’s house, so that when I came home, I’d have to clean it up, restore the order.

By the time I was thirteen, she had forbidden me to speak to any family member, besides herself and my brother, though there was no evidence that her actions were just. She abruptly moved us into the county where she enjoyed alienating me, telling me: “Your friends are rich snobs anyway.” Though I was a superior ballerina, the only dancer in my age range who performed on stage with professional dancers of the Dayton Ballet, she dragged me by the hair into the car after a performance screaming: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? I’m not gonna pay for you to fuck up anymore! That’s it! No more ballet!” I do not remember “I love you,” unless she was threatening us with a belt if we didn’t say those words to her, but I do remember kicking her in the face, making her bleed from her nose, after she bit my hand so hard that it was immovable.

I wish her well, though, for the majority of my life, she has either refused to admit that I am her daughter, or she has spread the news to people who know me that everything good about me, my academic accomplishments, my home, my animal rescue work, my professional successes, anything that I am passionate about or show interest in, are somehow the products of her design. I wish her peace, and I told her so, but I do not claim credit for creating the dynamic and devilish character that she became. I do not credit her for who I am. I can only claim all of own elaborate characterizations for which I am deeply honored to have known.

And, so, though it would take me until well after undergraduate school, into my thirties, halfway through my master’s degree in creative writing, I would finally find my way out of the sensitive armor that protected me throughout childhood, that kept me from having a voice.

I started writing about the built-in bookcase, stacked with mostly adult titles, behind grandpa’s chair, and my grandpa’s mumbling voice communicating something too adult for me to hear, the sound of a chunk of wet tobacco plopping into the bottom of his spittoon, John Wayne’s band of horses galloping and whinnying in between shotgun blasts and the enemy Indian’s instrumental battle cries. Because it was there that I found the words for all the things I knew were true, and I used those words to document my own truths, to begin speaking for other sentient souls that are desperate for attention, and deserve their own chance to jump inside a fast car, ride a gingerbread horse with the Frog Prince and his gal, the Corn Dolly.

There is a picture of me, dated September, 1982. I am four years old, one hand clutching the other, holding some unidentified item, likely, a piece of the earth from the backyard of my childhood where I am standing. My arms securing the item closely to my sternum, securing my casing’s placement. Blue jeans and a long-sleeved striped shirt could keep me from the chill of what must’ve been the first briskness of Fall, but I had to brace myself or I’d risk the skin of my pod to the danger of whoever was taking the picture.

Leaves on the Walnut tree are brown. The limbs are lonely, but long, far-reaching, and though the tree is a field away behind me, where it would take a long lens camera to recognize who exactly is in the background near the tree, I think it’s my brother’s blond hair peeking out from the greenness of the Birch trees beyond him. My cousin’s right knee is frozen in a bent running position. He is running left, forward, toward me. On the other side of the tree, a woman with dark hair, may be my mother, wearing a long white shirt and blue jeans, stands with her legs and arms apart, as if she is walking toward my little brother.

I stand to the far left of the tree. Without considering the actual distance between us, the tip of lowest limb connects with my perfectly pinned head of short light-brown, blond-streaked hair, as if it dangles me. I have a half-cocked grin on my face, one side trying to be what the photographer wants to see, the other biting on my own walnut rind. Thick linear shadows grow on the grass. My cousin runs across one. My brother stands inside the shaded lines with my mother. One thin shadowy line runs under my feet, as if I am balancing on a tightrope.

Some people say that it is lonely in the darkness, but running from it is far lonelier. I know because after my stay at Juvenile Detention Home, I escaped to my aunt’s house. While I was still in the custody of my mother, she made a call to my probation officer, leaving a message of screams and profanities and threats to murder my grandparents and my aunt. Afterward, it wasn’t difficult for protective services to persuade her to relinquish custody. I was picked up from school or my P.O.’s office or from a friend’s house, I can’t remember, but I do know that all I had with me when I arrived to my aunt’s home was a bag of clothes, books and toiletries, my survival bag, which I took everywhere with me, so that I would be ready upon the opportunity to stay at a friend’s house for days or weeks, as was my routine. I was always ready to run from my monster.

Though I was leaving a mother who either burned all of my belongings after I left, or gave them to strangers, a woman who couldn’t bear the weight of her own darkness, my aunt and uncle were not overtly sympathetic to the trauma I managed to suppress in order to survive. I wasn’t offered therapy, and even if my guardians had insisted on seeing through my masks, picked at my full body callus to discover my exposed nerve endings, I likely would have refused to address my childhood abuse. Instead, I stuck to writing my life’s stories inside my diaries. My imagination kept me free of the sweat of my long, hard runs.

I would write about my transition from living fast and loose, doing whatever I could to sail outside of my mother’s tsunamis, to a life that felt military-like, under my aunt’s strict surveillance of my every movement. I was forced to part ways with all of my childhood friends, because my aunt thought they were trouble. I was forced to disconnect from my brother, too. More importantly, my aunt – the one whose clicking heels toward the opened bathroom door sent my little girl heart racing, terrified of her judgment – saw the future me, the one I had, thus far, been ill-equipped to become on my own. I had to walk my aunt’s tightrope, and I did, expertly, without her ever finding out how often I defied subordination at school, or on the soccer field.

I believe that my aunt loved me, but she controlled me, too. Like Alice in Wonderland, if she felt I was too big to stay in between her lines, I ate her candy full of shrinking elixirs, diminishing signs of who I really was. If I wasn’t behaving with enough aspiration in school or while playing soccer, I ate her cookies and drank her cool glasses of growing milks, generating portrayals of the person she wanted me to be. I would write about how everything she made me eat tasted like chalk and soap, dust that coated my ego, lye that washed my authentic spirit.

My inability to feel as if I fit in with everyone else manifested far earlier than my arrival to my aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t her fault that I felt insecure, scared, and alienated from everyone in my life. I believe that she wanted the best for me, but my aunt’s love was not durable, and her affection was just as conditional as my mother’s, as I saw things. Often, I sensed Grendel’s tail swaying in the periphery of her pointed chin, jutting out from her dark hair. Her eyes, sharp as shards of her wine glass, just as penetrating as my mother’s, only bigger, a wider lens focusing on the entire scope of my pod and Tough Girl. Yet, between the who I was then and who I dreamed of becoming, my aunt was the qualified, experienced mother that I needed, and my ridicule of her behavior as a mother to me likely directly correlates with my own inexperienced and ill-equipped abilities to be someone’s daughter.

By following my aunt’s directives, and with my social life in strict control, I had plenty of time to listen to Chapman and Streisand and the Indigo Girls, their emotionally stimulating lyrics and melodies guiding my hand, clutching the pen, writing inside my diaries about watching all of my former friends smile and laugh and whisper mischievously, plan parties that I wasn’t invited to, pass notes about boys that I would never meet, could only imagine abstractly inside my diaries.

During an undergraduate poetry course, my instructor told me that I should try letting go of the abrupt happy endings that always appeared at the end of my dramatic, dark stanzas. “They do not connect well with the body of the work.” But I could not let go of that habit, since all of my journal entries articulated deep emotional angst, darned with gratitude for learning from my aunt how to blend in with the crowd, don an even better version of the Catholic school girl persona, and keep my eyes fixated on eighteen years old, and college, and freedom. Looking back through the eyes of handmade porcelain dolls, the life without physical abuse that she and my uncle gave to me was all I could’ve hoped for, was the rescue that I had been waiting for throughout my entire childhood. And my mother’s telephone call to my probation officer was Sylvia breaking through the psychic dissonance.

I wrote in alternating states of isolated pain and hope, as often as I ran from the darkness.  I ran all the way through college and throughout a great portion of my twenties. I ran because running was all I knew how to do. Tough Girl put my tennis shoes on every time the floods were coming, anytime the tides were sucking everyone else out to sea.

After I found myself in the middle of the sea, she was always knocking around on a buoy, throwing me one life-ring after another when I had fallen off the dinghy. And I’m not saying that she’s no longer with me, no longer my personal life coach. She still passes me the lifelines, pens and paper, and books, the flashlight I need in order to see clearly my own tornado of words, literature, stanzas, chapters zinging around my daily life. Maybe, someday, my protective exoskeleton will dissolve completely.

Like cinematic dissolves, like a photo developing, like shadows dissipating from the background, from underneath my feet, maybe I’ll lose my shell forever, permanently replace it with my creative writing tornado. “I’m never optimistic. From that angle, the evidence always looks undetermined. But I am full of hope” (West, 41). What I do know is that I no longer fear floating off into my mother’s darkness. I can never hope for justice with regard to her, because schizophrenia is not a beatable opponent, and that battle is not a worthy situation within my larger story.

You cannot ask paranoid schizophrenia for an apology, at least not the kind that you deserve. No one in my family was practiced in healthy apologies. I did not learn how to appropriately use the social skill until my aunt and uncle began telling me when and how to apologize to my aunt, something I often did, though mostly, my view was that the apologies could’ve also been dispensed to me, by her, as frequently as I offered her mine. My grandmother never apologized for spreading gossip about my cousin. Believing her own delusions, she told acquaintances that he moved to Mexico with a prostitute because he got her pregnant, or something just as strange. Meanwhile, he was single, without any prospective children, living in Flagstaff, Arizona while finishing his master’s degree.

Her delusional behavior may have began when my mother and aunt were children, but I didn’t notice until after I moved in with her when I came back from North Carolina when she began mistreating me without explanation. When I could no longer brace myself from the emotional impact of her ignoring my voice while I stood directly in front of her, or her grimaces and slamming doors, I asked her: “What have I done wrong? I’m sorry for whatever it is. Why are you doing this to me?” As she sat down on the edge of the end table, as if sulking in defeat by her own mind, her sharp eyes glowing underneath her dark brows, pointedly, she said: “Because I want to.”

My grandmother did not want resolution. She wanted to inflict pain, as if she were ever the victim. She felt powerful when she hurt people, just like my mother. A few years after moving out of my grandmother’s house, after I repacked my SUV and my dogs for a period of homelessness, my grandmother died of some type of heart condition. I don’t know for sure, because by then I had decided that it was best to stay away from my family members. Anyway, I don’t think that I was welcome, unless I wanted to endure humiliation and confusion, or live with a constant thrumming in my chest, worried that I was sending the wrong signals to any one of them, or making the wrong decision about which hair color to choose.

I cannot hope for mental illness to go away, for the infection to clear up on its own. There are no antibiotics for the type of disease that afflicts my family. I cannot hope for my aunt and mother to begin appropriately interpreting my words or gestures, or for a more fair system of familial interaction. To them, everyone seems to be a potential enemy, even those that mind their authority, though I did not realize that I possessed enough power to affect anyone, least likely the tough, bigger than life, matriarchal dragons of my family.

Each woman in my family has more than enough power to both painfully destroy and affectionately influence brilliance in others, though it often seems as if none of us realize our talents and abilities until we’ve already lost them to a story we had not intended to write. The only thing that I can hope for is a long walk on my own shadowy line between love and fear. I can hope for more revelations, a deeper, more fully developed perspective of my family and of myself, and I walk the line toward that light of understanding.

(Snap!) The Odysseus in me could never allow the Cyclops to defeat me, and my shouting voice will forever echo my real name from my ship: I am Andrea, Tough Girl, lover of language, believer in the power of creative thought and stories, a voice for the perpetually voiceless, Catholic Reiki Master lesbian. Survivor of Cyclops. I am the light. Now that you know who I am, tell Poseidon to bring on the storm. I’ve got Athene and a boat full of Orwell’s farm animals, my seven dwarves, the Tin Man and Toto, all my favorite poems by Sylvia Plath, her daddy, too, and I’m writing my own narrative of love and fear. Everyone’s got a good story to tell of love and fear, adversity challenging our wills, and the evolution of our emotive, artistic genesis. May we each find a reason to collapse into ourselves, dive into the richness of our imaginations and memories, reclaim the essence of who we really are. Your story is not so different from mine.

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

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