I have this cousin. I speak about her in the present tense, though I am quite certain that if you mentioned my name to her today she would respond with a “Who?” It wouldn’t be because she doesn’t know who you’re talking about, because she would. It would be because she doesn’t want to remember me.
I was doing searches on Facebook the other day and plinked her name in the Search bar just to see if she was out there. And there she was. I was only hoping to see her picture, to see how she had changed, if she was smiling. Imagine my surprise to find out her Wall was open to the public! I clicked on her Wall. I didn’t know what I’d find.
She is a few years older than me. She has two sisters and three brothers. I remember her mother was always in the bed, sick with one illness or another. I think today she would have been prescribed antidepressants as I’m sure that was the majority of her ailment. Her father was present, but not *present*, if you know what I mean.
She was a foot shorter than me. She had hair so curly that it stuck out on both sides of her head like a clown wig when she brushed it. And she brushed it every day. She never allowed it to hang in those impossible long curls that girls would kill for today. She hated her hair. She had devilish green eyes and full lips. If she had allowed her looks to graduate naturally she could have given Julia Roberts a run for her money.
She was also LOUD and as mean as a snake.
And she hated me.
While I was busy attending private schools, learning to ride a horse, buying new clothes for Easter and getting a car for my sixteenth birthday, she was at home babysitting. She was the middle daughter. Her oldest sister got pregnant and married and moved out. Her oldest brother left home as soon as he could get away, her mother kept her place in the parent’s bed and my cousin ran the household. There was no one else to do it.
Perhaps she always knew it would come to that.
Perhaps she always knew she would be stuck holding the bag.
I wonder if that is what made her so hateful when she was younger.
I didn’t know how much she hated me when we were growing up. I never knew this until we were much older. You see, when we were growing up, right down the road from one another, I wanted to be her friend. I wanted to be just like her. I admired her sharp tongue. I thought she was smart and funny. I liked the clothes she picked out each school morning and I was envious of her ROTC uniform on marching days. To me she defined *cool*.
She hurt me along the way. More than once I discovered tiny cracks in our relationship. Why I didn’t learn from those discoveries will always be a mystery to me. There were clear messages sent that she hated me, but I ignored every one of them.
The first time I discovered she had been stealing from me, I cried. Her younger sister finally showed me all of the trinkets, the red nail polish, the books, the plethora of minutiae she had squandered and hidden beneath her jacket each time she visited my tiny bedroom in the house down the road. “She has even gone to your house when you’re away at sleep-away camp and stolen things.” her sister told me.
Her younger sister and I played together a lot growing up. She never wanted to be like her sister. The younger sister suffered so many beatings from her older sister that she cowered whenever she raised her hand.
I searched for her on Facebook that day too and found her. I wasn’t surprised to see that the two of them weren’t friends on there.
One lazy spring afternoon I was propped up on my bed reading a book. I had both of the windows open in my room and the spring breeze was blowing the curtains inward. My room was in the back of the house and one of my windows overlooked the clothesline.
Our clothesline increased in size when one of my sisters moved into the house across the road with her five children. That’s a story for another day.
That afternoon, as I read one of my children’s classics, I heard one of the new cousins talking with someone at the clothesline. This cousin hated hanging clothes out on the line. She wanted to use the clothes dryer and thought hanging clothes on the line was punishment. This day she was crying and she was very angry, so I eavesdropped. I could only hear her voice because she was so mad. I couldn’t hear the other person because they were speaking very quietly.
“Mama told me that I needed to start spending more time with her instead of with you!” A pause as the other person responded. “I don’t want to hang around with her! I want to hang around with you!” The tearful distress was obvious in her voice. Whatever was being asked of her was something she truly hated doing.
Even though the process of hanging clothes carried them farther away from my window, I could still hear my cousin lamenting because she was getting more and more upset. I finally craned my neck to see who her companion was and saw that it was my cousin from down the road. The two of them were the same age. They were also middle sisters in each of their families.
That Saturday I got dressed, ate breakfast and decided to visit my newest cousin to see if she wanted to do something. Maybe we could hike in the woods, build a fort, ride bikes or climb trees. She was coming out of the house and had mounted her bicycle when I walked up. I could tell she had been crying.
“Hey! Where are you going?” I asked.
She turned around and glared at me. “I’m going to my cousin’s house!”
“Fun! Let me get my bike and I’ll go with you!” I exclaimed.
She jerked her handlebars around and slammed her front tire in the dirt with a loud “NO!”
“Okay.” I said.
She was scaring me a little, but there was enough bravery in me to ask her why I couldn’t go, so I asked her and she told me. “Mama is trying to make me hang around with you because she thinks you’re a better influence on me, but I don’t like you! You’re a baby! I don’t want to hang around with babies! Go away and leave me alone!” She turned on her bike and tore off down the road to my cousin’s house.
I remember standing there. I was trying to process what it meant to be a baby. I truly didn’t understand. What had I done wrong? In a small voice I remember pleading with her back, that was getting smaller and smaller as she peddled like she was on fire “But I can try to not be a baby. I can try.”
Then I remembered the afternoon at the clothesline. They had been talking about me. God love my oldest sister for not wanting her daughter to be influenced by my cousin. But she had sacrificed me in the effort to save her daughter from her.
As a fledgling teenager, I finally started to protect myself from my cousin too.
I was the first person in the family to buy a pair of bell bottom jeans. They were the kind that the color faded from light to dark so the bells were dark blue. And they were big bells too. I could have worn one of those pants legs as a miniskirt they were so wide.
Instead of hailing me as a trendsetter, my cousin labeled me a pot-smoking-hippie and condemned me for wearing them. She enlisted the taunts and jabs of her brothers, sisters and cousins at the bus stop to beat me down, but I ignored them. I liked my bell bottom blue jeans.
Then one morning she came bearing gifts. She pulled a small plastic baggy from her pocket and another small packet of cigarette papers.
“I got you some pot!” She tried to shove it into my hand and I resisted.
“I don’t smoke pot!”
“Yes you do HIPPIE!!! Now here! Smoke it and prove you’re a hippie!” She threw the baggy at my feet, laughed and walked away. It was still laying on the ground as I got on the bus that morning.
Once again my younger cousin enlightened me. The baggy was nothing more than dried poison ivy leaves. She told me that if I had smoked it I probably would have died.
“Do you think I’m a hippie?” I asked her.
“No, but I do think if you died my sister would be very happy about it.”
Throughout my childhood she was a constant presence. Every chance she got she played mean tricks on me or tried to hurt me in some manner. Somehow I always got through it. Somehow I always found a way to keep loving her and looking up to her. Somehow.
Easter Sunday meant a huge Easter Egg Hunt at our house would be in progress right after church. When I was younger I loved these, but always had to worst time finding eggs. My younger cousin and I were the same age and we usually hunted eggs together, but she was much quicker at finding them than I ever was. This Easter we were both teenagers and beyond participating in the hunt so we decided to hang out in my room and listen to records.
We were both sitting on my bed when her sister came bursting in. She was angry with my young cousin about something and started yelling and slapping her on the head. My cousin cowered and covered her face with her hands. She started crying. She never fought back when her sister started beating on her. She would just lay there and take the beating. I was yelling for her to stop it and she turned on me.
“Oh, so you think you’re tough enough to stand up for her now? Is that it?”
It all happened in slow motion in my mind. I remember being nearly petrified with fear. It felt like stepping into a pit of vipers and I knew that no matter what else ever happened, if I didn’t stand strong I would never be allowed to live without fear again. So I stood my ground.
I watched as she stood over me and raised her hand. I saw that open palm aimed at my face. I remember squeezing my eyes shut and knowing this was going to hurt. I blindly raised my own open palm and aimed for what I thought was her face and I connected.
I had never hit anyone in anger in my life.
Her hand never reached me. Instead it dropped like a rock and she threw herself back convulsively screaming. Her face was beet red and her cries were inhuman. Everyone in the house came running. They descended on her. She was rolling around on the floor and gripping her midsection.
I was removed from the room and told to sit in a chair in the kitchen until someone could talk to me. I didn’t know what I had done to make her crumple like a rag doll and I was scared. I told myself that she was probably faking this to get me in trouble. That would be more her style. But no one was coming out of the room except to get pans of hot water and bandages.
What had I done?
My blind swipe was one of pure luck. My open palm-slap landed square in her exposed armpit. The armpit that was exposed because she was trying to hit me. This armpit had a full blown boil that was ready to burst. My slap expedited this process. I can only imagine the electric shock waves this sent rolling through her small frame.
It’s like all of the fury I felt for every lousy thing she had ever done to me culminated in the bursting of that boil.
I never apologized.
My cousin dropped out of high school the next year when she was hospitalized for a late term abortion. She claimed she had been raped, though I knew the baby’s father was a boy she had been dating for a few years. When she turned up pregnant the boy wanted nothing more to do with her. So she denounced the relationship and cried rape. To her credit, she never pointed the authorities in his direction and she could have ruined his life back during those tumultuous times. The baby’s father was black.
She ended up pregnant out of wedlock again just a year later and this man married her. She’s still married to him today.
While I was finishing college and traveling the world, she was raising a family.
I saw her once in a store years later. She looked right at me and then she looked right through me. I smiled and teetered on the verge of saying hello, but her body language was clear. “Stay away from me.” So I honored her denial and I went about my day. I haven’t seen her again in almost thirty years.
That afternoon I reacquainted myself with my cousin on Facebook. I didn’t send her a Friend Request, but I did read her posts and I looked at her photos. On Facebook her life is an open book, though none of what she is truly made of shows. One post read “Do you think I don’t know what you say about me when I’m not around?”. I had to look over my shoulder to make sure she wasn’t in the room with me. Then I realized how much she still scares me.
If I were to make an unbiased, professional assessment of all of her posts, which are peppered with religious belligerence and open defiance, I would have to say that she is still trapped in her past. Until she forgives herself she will always be there. Her present day posts also belie the fact that the way she conducted her young life is still in use today and she still has people in her life that make her miserable enough to strike out at them.
But that same fact can be said of me. I still have people just like her in my life too. I try to ignore the taunts and the slights and find a way to keep loving them. And they keep hurting me until one day I decide it’s enough and I burst the boil again.
One post read “No Matter how bad things look, things happen for a reason. Always remember the windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror in the car for a reason.”
It’s a lovely thought.
I guess whether or not we choose to keep looking in the rear view mirror is completely up to us. They teach us in Driver’s Ed that this is a safety precaution, so we’ll know what’s coming up behind us.
Am I better off just using my windshield? Looking back can be painful sometimes. But should I take a gander at my rear view mirror now and again just so I can have a better appreciation of the view that’s right in front of me?
I think so.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to clean off the few specks of bug that have marred my view and get on with my journey. The look back was brief and now it’s over.