The holiday: Thanksgiving. The year: 2002, three months after I had started dating the guy who would become my husband.
I had taken the Amtrak train from NYC to DC for what I’d hoped would be a peaceful day with my mother, brother, and his family. But, as always, I was apprehensive. For our entire relationship, things rarely went smoothly between my brother and me. Online, through a keyboard, we could communicate almost without incident. In person, he and I resembled two lit kegs of dynamite.
On the train to DC that day, I remember feeling happy, so gloriously happy. I had fallen in love with a man who treated me differently than anyone had before. Kindly, generously, lovingly. This dude loved me, big time. Although it had only been a few months, I knew he and I had a future together, and that future looked so incredibly bright that I hardly knew what to do with myself.
I arrived at my brother’s house and, as always, the tension between us was palpable. I tried my best to ignore it by keeping busy with his two young kids. My mother sat around, watching TV, not saying much. My sister-in-law, a talented chef, got started in the kitchen, preparing what I’m sure was a feast, a feast I never tasted because of what happened next.
Like always, my brother tossed out some casual comment to which I took offense. Like always, I expressed hurt. His wife and my mother jumped to his defense, telling me I was over-sensitive. His kids did their best to pretend nothing was amiss. That was the routine, as was his rebuttal, “If you don’t like it here, leave.”
I heeded his advice and requested a ride to the subway station so I could grab a train back to New York. Silently, my mother slid on her coat and we headed out the door. In the car, she said the same words to me she’d said my entire life. “You need to accept your brother. You need to stop being so sensitive. What am I going to say to him to change things? He’s a grown man.”
As the sun set, she dropped me off at a dark and unfamiliar Metro station. Thirty minutes later I was purchasing an Amtrak ticket to New York, avoiding the agent’s eyes.
Sitting on a bench, I remembered that I had promised to call my future hubby, who at that point knew next to nothing about my problems with my family. I realized that I had no choice but to call him on a pay phone since I’d been too frugal to renew my cell phone contract.
I agonized. Do I call his house, where his parents could answer and hear that I’m at the Amtrak station? Will they ask questions? Will he be embarrassed to tell them the truth?
I picked up the receiver, cursing myself for not having a cell phone, and dialed his family’s number. It rang a couple of times and his mom answered. “Hello,” I said far too brightly. “This is Wendy. It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
Inside, I was burning with shame. Surely she’d find out that I was spending Thanksgiving eating a Subway tuna fish sandwich on Amtrak. Surely she wanted something better for her son. Surely I wasn’t good enough for him.
When hubby finally got on the phone, he noticed the tension in my voice at once but had no idea what to make of it. I had no idea how to tell him how embarrassed I was for not having a traditional Thanksgiving and for not having a traditional family. I knew that if he found out, he’d want nothing more to do with me. That’s how it had been with prior boyfriends. Why would it be any different this time around? I was damaged goods.
A few days later, back in New York, I told him the truth. My background was unlike that of any other woman he’d probably ever dated. There was mental illness, dysfunction, abuse, neglect, poverty, teen pregnancy, and attempted suicide, and I carried all this baggage around with me. Every single day. And my family's response to my pain was get over it, it didn’t happen, stop playing the victim, and you're a liar.
Hubby didn’t judge. He didn’t disagree, he didn’t defend, and he didn’t deny. He simply listened. And then he told me he loved me.
And that’s when everything changed. It’s when I realized that there were two narratives in my family. Mine and theirs. And those narratives would never be altered. I had my version of history. They had theirs. And those two versions would never overlap. So I had some choices. I could accept that they’d never acknowledge what had happened to me, I could fight them to prove I was right, or I could say goodbye. And I chose goodbye.
That Thanksgiving Day was not the final goodbye. There was my wedding a few months later, when we all tried to put up a good front. The final goodbye came after my daughter was born, when I decided that I couldn’t bear for her to witness the anguish I experienced, the anguish I would always experience.
Surprisingly, the final parting didn't hurt. In fact, it felt like a release, like I had finally been set free. It affirmed what I had thought for a while, which is that sometimes in life we can walk away from a broken fence rather than mend it. In the six or so years since I’ve walked away from my parents and my brother, I’ve experienced a sense of hope and peace I never thought possible. So much so that I’m now able to wish the same for them as well.
We all know that we can’t control which families we’re born into. But at a certain point, if we’re lucky, we meet someone who helps us realize that we deserve to be loved, respected, cherished, and heard. This Thanksgiving, I will again ache for the girl who comes from the screwed up family. And then I will rejoice for her, for she has come farther than she ever thought possible.
~By Wendy Widom, Families in the Loop
[Photo credit: Sura Nualpradid/FreeDigitalPhotos.net]