(Warning: you may not want to read this.)
I have lived most of my life with a waste container just outside my active imagination. It is a container for the toxic waste of my life.
Recently, due to circumstances beyond my control, otherwise known as God, the container has moved inside the realm of my thoughts, and has taken up a sizable portion of the room that once was dedicated to contemplating the flittering of cardinals or the glory that can be found in some people’s souls.
And now, now that’s it’s right before me day and night, I can easily read the label: I am weird.
Over my lifetime I had used it as a receptacle for all those reactions I had when I came up short in measuring my actions and reactions in the world with those of others.
There were the memories of standing, confused, with my friends in school and not understanding why they found pleasure in criticizing other students, or treating boys as though they were future purchases they would be making.
I am weird. I don’t have those kind of thoughts.
The container got quite a few of those.
There were all those strange reactions to the people around me: my tears over receiving a hat from my father, etc.
Recently, I got very busy taking out quite a few, how could I have been so unnatural, thoughts upon having the opportunity to become aware of how one of my brothers experienced our childhood. I had to face that I, unlike a “real” child, did not cry because of the cruelty I experienced. Instead, I spent my tears on feeling that, because of the way my mother and father treated me and the rest of the world, I was unable to honor them.
I felt a failure, inadequate.
But, now, comparing that with how my brother reacted, the container was put to good use.
And then I had a certain memory of serving my mother extensively one year. So extensively that I essentially gave up my own life, and went without very real things like sleep and exercise.
And the contrast between how she treated me and how I treated her was so stark, so barbed, that my container not only became filled, it enlarged to such an extent that it threatened to take over all of me.
Worst of all was how I felt about serving her: all I could find in the memory was a sense of peace.
I went from, boy am I weird, all the way through, how unnatural am I anyway, to finish off with, I must be some kind of monster. To find serving my mother unselfishly just an expected and logical thing to do.
The weight of the container became such that it felt as though it had destroyed the floor of stability on which it stood, and because of this, I fell.
And for a while I didn’t know where I was going to land.
And then I received an email. I am currently in a class for prayer ministry, and the email informed me that the next class – last night’s – was going to be on honoring our mothers and fathers.
So I prepared myself emotionally for the class. Yes, I told myself, my story is not going to be like anyone else’s. But the class was for healing, and I was committed to start the healing process that having lived with my toxic waste container was demanding of me.
But God being God, people being people, life being life, and the fact that last night was Ash Wednesday which influenced the population of the class profoundly, the opportunity for me to ask for help never arose.
And so, when I left the class I found myself angry and hurt. As though the toxic waste container had broken open and now I was walking around in the muck that it was spewing.
In the mess, I had a memory. I might even call it, The Memory. Or even, The Crowning Memory.
My family was a very gregarious one. Socializing was so important that someone once counted seating for 124 in our great room. I could be remembering the number wrong, but it wouldn’t be by much.
One of the gatherings I could depend on as happening was the family reunion. A time that was defined by the tinkling of ice in glasses and laughter. Oh, yes, and food.
Grilled lobster sandwiches for a snack. A line of pies. Endless dishes made by many flying hands in the kitchen. Served properly or in a relaxed fashion.
For once, it didn’t matter.
My grandmother held the position of hostess, presenter, scheduler.
The Ed Sullivan of the show.
My mother was the Elvis Presley.
The one whose words people hung on.
There was in her repertoire one of her favorites. One that she told at least once a year. A story that always could be depended on to receive a roaring approval.
It was the story of my birth.
I was born at the Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, Maine. A hospital, at the time of my birth, so small and serving such a tiny population that it might even be an exaggeration to say that it birthed a baby every month.
But not on the day I was born.
On the day I was born, two babies were born.
One, a blond, blue-eyed boy; and me, a dark-haired girl.
Easy to tell the difference.
But that’s not how the story went.
Instead, it was all about how my mother had insisted that the doctor had given her the wrong baby.
She had already birthed two boys, the latter being blond and blue-eyed. Surely, the story went, the boy had to be hers.
So, you see, right from the moment of my first breath I was unwelcome in the family.
But years go by. A good storyteller, knowing her audience, has to do something with the story in order for it not to go flat, to lose its appeal.
So facts were added. Conversations about it all included. Audience participation, you see.
Ah, yes, Joyce, they would go. You really did insist that she wasn’t yours, didn’t you? How long did it take for the doctor to get you to stop calling him about this?
Ah, so the attempted abandonment of her daughter became a real event in her life. Not just a post-birth, hormone-induced confusion.
It had become her mission. To get her “real” baby back.
And get rid of her.
Me, that is.
It had to have been a mistake. An error in hospital records.
(Insert sound of tinkling ice here. Sound effects are so important to successful entertainment, don’t you think?)
But the expansion of the details didn’t stop here.
Why should it have?
The final revelation was when she told us all how after my birth, the doctor, being a country doctor who did things in an old-fashioned manner, instead of whisking me away to a nursery and fussing nurses, placed me on her belly.
So, it seems, she had looked down and seen me. My hair.
She knew she had birthed a dark-haired girl.
There I was, wiggling, wet, grasping. Looking for a response.
Right then and there.
I can’t remember the volume of laughter that that detail received.
I was too busy putting all the pieces together.
So you knew that I was your daughter, and not only did you blubber out something about the boy being yours, you made it your purpose in life to straighten out the “mistake.” Me.
Until the doctor put a stop to your attempts to right the wrong that you were having to endure.
So just how unwanted can one child be?
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.
Year after year after year after year. The same story. With eventual fleshing out.
The story of my birth was an amusing anecdote for the family to enjoy.
I, aka she, was a bottomless source of mirth.
So just what is your reaction, Julia? For once, for once in your life, will you become outraged, raise your fist, and cry out against the indignity?
Don’t I wish.
I had to wait a bit to find out what my feelings were about my childhood.
It was guilt.
I felt guilty.
Because I lived apart from the family.
It wasn’t an apartness that came from wanting to get away from it all (imagine wanting that). It was an apartness that came from wanting to get closer to God.
And, for that, I felt guilty.
And ashamed. Profoundly ashamed.
The toxic thoughts started way back then.
I have a relationship with God. There must be something wrong with me.
But I, in my own quiet way, was relieved to be freed from the demands that a loving mother may have placed on me: talking, sharing, doing things together. Instead, I got to use my free time, free from chores and homework, to be with God.
And this made me happy. Very, very happy.
And so I was ashamed of that happiness. That relationship.
Perhaps it’s a good thing when a waste container breaks apart. Perhaps witnessing the contents is a means of healing.
Because, for the first time in my life, I went from thinking, I am weird, to the very simple, That is just who you are, Julia.
And, then, today, I noticed a very subtle change in me.
In my rosary prayers, my now fast and committed prayer changed. Just one word.
It went from:
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Speak Lord, for your daughter is listening.