Little invited herself to my house for Labor Day Weekend. It had that feeling, you know? The one you get when someone is making a trip to tell you something in person. I mean, why else make a 5+ hours drive with a 7 month old in holiday traffic?
For a full day, we spent the time small talking, cooing at her baby, until I had to wonder if perhaps my sister just needed a break from her new schedule of broken sleep and constant infant care. I think that’s the first part, in retrospect: the knowing and not knowing, at the same time.
We stole away for very late dessert after my kids were tucked in bed and hers down for the 8-11 evening nap. Again, that sense of unease — The hotel- adjacent-not-quite-a-chain diner, the neutral ground of it.
Over decaf and shared desserts, she asked about my family, my kids, and I lulled myself into thinking, maybe this is it, the thing she came for. The connection. It crossed my mind she’d tell me she was pregnant again. Maybe they were moving, or there was a marital issue. So I told her about my daughter, going into high school, how a boy in her class asked her to meet at Farmer’s Market and omigod, dating is right around the corner.
Little said, “I’ve noticed something about (my daughter), and you’re not going to like hearing it.” And then she paused, perched. Waiting.
Usually, I am the kind of person who lets the conversation go where it wants and figures out what we talked about later – like two days later, in the shower. But as it happened, this article by Elizabeth Gilbert flashed in my head at her comment, and so I had a blue print for how to act in response to the strange way Little’d teased negative information, as if trying to make me a co-conspirator in her shit talking my child. Anyway, somehow I wasn’t caught flatfooted.
I didn’t smile back. “Then maybe rethink saying it.”
On Little’s face, an unsure smile flashing then disappearing, mouth closing. Then her decision not to be intimidated out of whatever she came here to say, that I wouldn’t like, about my child.
“She reminds me a lot of Mom,” Little said, but not in a harmless way. She said it as if this was an arrow fired into me, close range.
It wasn’t. My kid and my mom are related. I said so.
Later I will wonder if Little thought her comment would force me to either appreciate Mom or perhaps disown some part of my daughter.
Little shrugged. “Well, it’s just that you’re so angry with Mom.”
It felt uncomfortably odd for my sister to tell me how I feel. What I’m actually feeling at the moment of this conversation is: Oh, ok. I have now stepped into whatever trap this is, that I could sense five days ago but still didn’t manage to avoid.
But I end up nodding. I have been angry with Mom, so I guess that’s a fair assessment, even though what I’ve felt over the past year is more like embers instead of bonfire.
Little looks distressed, as if she hates that we are talking about this. Even though she brought it up. “You know, I get it. It’s just that, to me, Mom’s just always trying to help everyone, like until she runs herself into exhaustion. You know, I can’t help but feel sorry for her.”
I am not skilled enough to sidestep this trap either. Instead, I plunge right in. Because Mom trying to help everyone is one of her most defining characteristics. She can see the good in anyone, and if you are in trouble, she’ll walk across hot coals to help you. Everyone loves my mom because of this. Especially abusers, who know if they look pitiful and needy enough, she will shelter them. She can’t help herself. Like she’s told me more than once, they have often been victimized themselves. And she has to protect victims.
After Little leaves, I’ll realize Little’s using the same tactics my mother used when I spent years trying to explain why I didn’t like the Ex Communicated Relatives. I have to store all my facts and examples, my logical arguments, so that at any time, I might be ready to justify myself.
But I am already feeling queasy by the time I sum up. “This makes me feel like the black sheep,” I say, then feel stupid because that doesn’t really make sense in context, and sounds kind of whiny, like I’m trying to get in Little’s good graces.
“No, I appreciate it,” she says. We pay our bill and walk through the shared parking lot to her hotel. “It gives me insight, you know? I’m just amazed how differently you and I think.” She laughs to herself and adds like an afterthought, “That’s what (her husband) says, you know? Maybe that’s how I’m the normal one in our family.”
This arrow lands. I stop in the street, putting on my Big Sister face, which is full of my eight years seniority. I’ve just spent the day hosting her husband; it feels super gross to have the veil of his politeness slip, to hear he thinks I’m not normal. I mean, probably all spouses spend bonding moments elevating their loved ones with assurances of being the ‘normal’ one.
I hate him, because that’s way easier than hating Little right now. Later, I will realize this is her bringing in a second opinion to characterize me as angry.
“Oh really?” I fold my arms, unsmiling, and fully let her squirm. “(Your husband) thinks I’m not normal?”
Little colors, fumbles, says, “Well you know Middle’s (uncomplimentary thing about Middle), and you’re so angry.”
Of course, then I am not just angry, but super angry. It’s a great trap. Once a woman is identified as ‘angry’, you don’t have to consider anything she says, do you? And I’m amazed at how shamed I feel, how desperate my knee-jerk reaction to do anything to not be perceived as an angry woman. Even as I back up from that impulse, I realize: how can I possibly defend myself against her accusation when I am totally furious, and rightfully so? And finally: The whole time I was defending my position about Mom, Little must’ve seen me as the aggressor.
Later, I will realize this is the second time she’s called me angry, even though I haven’t so much as raised my voice the entire evening.
I haven’t decided what to do. On one hand, Little’s a product of our family dynamic. She wants things to go back to the way they were, and is using the tools that used to make our family hold together.
I considered step-by-step pointing out to her the micro aggressions, like dubbing me angry and mom pitiful. But lecturing her on word choice in the midst of her next trap seems unwieldy. Hell even saying the words ‘micro aggressions’ out loud make me feel like I’m exactly the kind of angry woman that’s easiest to dismiss.
I also considered that maybe I can’t let her in anymore. This makes me deeply sad, if only for the selfish reason that not that many people know me, and as I’m losing more connections in my family, I’m also not likely to replace that level of trust with new friendships.
I considered embracing anger. Maybe if I go full artistic Fuck This Bullshit, she’ll see what a shallow, repressive asshole she’s being.
Husband and I are going to Paris this week for our 17th anniversary. May be posting photos to FB if you want in: https://www.facebook.com/anne.nahm.35