As far back as I can remember, my mother has always had one stern warning for me and my brothers: "I don't want you guys to turn out like me and my siblings."
She's not wrong to be fearful. My mother's family is a toxic network of abuse, neglect, guilt, addiction, shame, denial, and back-biting. For a litany of very good reasons, I spent most of my life totally cut off from my mother's family, except for my grandmother Max. Max currently lives with us now, because she's bed-bound and in need of 24-hour care. She lives with us because my mother's brothers abandoned her in an adult care facility and left her to die, and my mother had to rescue my grandmother from their gross, willful negligence.
This is the kind of stock I come from. You can see why I'm in therapy, right? Except for Max, I didn't really have any contact or connection with my extended family. That's a good thing, and I understand that. But because of this, I only ever get my mother's side of the story about her siblings. Of course, I know a lot of it is true. I've seen their dysfunction in action on numerous occasions, and Max is living proof that her own children are very cruel. If you leave your own mother to die in a lonely bed, in a understaffed care facility, I tend to think there's nothing about you worth knowing.
There's a problem with this, though. Whenever my mother warns me not to be like her siblings, I can immediately see the parallels she's talking about. I can see echoes of my uncles in my brothers, and I see echoes of my aunt in myself, from what little contact we've had with them. Because I had an aunt, once. She's dead now. She died of cancer that my mother blames her for getting. I didn't know her then for the same reasons I still don't know my uncles. When I think back to my aunt, and I listen to my mother talk about her, I can see why my mother's worried.
I catch myself saying the things my aunt said, lashing out about the same things my aunt did. I see my mother look at me. I think, "She must think me like her sister." Her Crazy Sister. Her Bitch Sister. Now, as an adult, I'm trying to get to know my aunt, in the only way that I can. Through Polaroid photographs and letters, the stories told to me and the ones I remember for myself. I'm trying to walk backwards through time to see how my aunt got to become Crazy Sister, Bitch Sister.
I'm trying to salvage the woman my mother fears I'll become.
To be frank, I didn't know much about my aunt as a kid. I knew that she ran her own interior decorating business. I knew she played piano and painted angels. I knew she had one son. I knew she was married many times. I knew she loved NASCAR. I knew she had a Pomeranian named Tiger and a three-legged cat named Sable. I knew she was thin as a skeleton. I knew she loved shopping. I knew she drove a big gas-guzzling SUV and always had gum in her purse. I knew she was very feminine and made sure to act it. I knew she wanted me, the consummate tomboy, to do the same. I knew she was bossy and always made a scene. I knew that she took me shopping for clothes when I dropped a lot of weight. I knew she was angry. I knew she cried a lot. I knew she took pills. I knew she thought she was always sick. I knew she took medication she didn't need because of it.
I now know a lot more, though.
I now know that her father, my grandfather, abandoned his children on multiple occasions. I now know my grandfather used to hit her. I now know when she was old enough she started hitting him back. I now know she was overweight as a child. I now know she never felt good about herself. I now now that she spent her entire adulthood in therapy. I now know that she never forgave her mother for staying with her father all those years. I now know that she ran away a lot as a teenager. I now know that she lost her teeth and had to get dentures in her 20s. I now know that she lost her first baby, a little girl, and never recovered. I now know that her first two marriages were to men who beat her within an inch of her life. I now know that her relationship with her son was messy and strange and sad. I now know that her third marriage was to a man who loved her but had a coke addiction. I now know that the pills she took for illnesses she didn't have caused the cancer that killed her. I now know that she wanted to encourage me to lose weight like she did.
I now know that had relationships with women. I now know that she lied about them. I now know that everybody called her a Fucking Dyke. A Fucking Lesbo. A Fucking Liar who Slept with Women to Get Attention. Fucking Crazy Bitch.
Maybe my aunt was a bad person. Maybe she was a broken, sad, angry person. Maybe I'm not my aunt. But I look at all these threads - all these atoms and particles, these disparate elements that made up a woman I never really knew - and I see the Crazy Bitch my mother is afraid I'll become.
And I can't be so hard on her anymore.