Swimming and Scorn on Summer Afternoons

Characters: My brother, D. My 2nd cousin, C. And me.
Year: 1978. I was 15. D was 14, C was 16.
Place: PV Park – the lake in our town where kids and mostly moms went daily to swim from Memorial Day to Labor Day. On the weekends, it was mainly families. But weekday afternoons were filled with teens, before and after our shifts at our part-time jobs.

We had been a trio for a while. We all had a similar sense of humor and the same penchant for fun, usually involving beer, with a little bit of trouble mixed in, usually cigarettes and weed. We hung around together a lot. We were, after all, related. Family. Ya know?

School had just gotten done for the year. So it was sometime in mid-June. My brother came to me and said, “Just so you know, we can all go to the lake together, same as always. But C and I won’t be talking to you. You can put your towel down near us, but don’t even try to talk to us.” I was hurt, baffled, confused and flustered. “Why?!” D says, “Cuz your hips have gotten too wide. We’re embarrassed of you.”

This is D we’re talking about. My Dad’s ‘mini-me’, misogynist and patriarch-in-training. I told you last post about the status he held at the dinner table. It wasn’t only at the dinner table, it was in everything. Though we were raised as ‘Irish twins’ being only 11 months apart in age, with me being older, it didn’t matter. I was female. He rated, I didn’t. He got to decree things, I was supposed to practice subservience.

So we went to the lake the first time after D’s edict. And I, as I’d been directed to, laid my towel down away from them, isolated and filled with shame. I recall saying something to C, thinking he wouldn’t go along with my brother’s nonsense. He ignored me. They both did. This went on for weeks. And, for whatever reason, as I’d been programmed to do, I allowed it without question. I took my brother’s word for it and molded myself into an inferior-feeling insecure version of who I was meant to be. He held such power in the family. He was allowed to, my parents let him. I assumed they were all right. I absorbed his belief that there was something wrong with me, based on my puberty-induced hip growth. They must be hideous, I gathered, to command such embarrassment.

Fast forward to August, the same summer. I had stopped eating except for dinners, where my mother could oversee my intake. I refused foods that were ‘fattening’, ate only meat and vegetables. And after dinner I’d do my routine. First, I’d make myself puke up the dinner, then I’d put on shorts and sneakers and going running. Every night.

Yeah, I lost some weight. But my hips stayed the same. See, it was bones I was dealing with. I was growing taller, too. And getting breasts. But my hips were revolting. Weren’t they? That’s what my brother and cousin thought.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when I was married and we were trying to have children. I was struggling. Lost my first pregnancy, then my second. Amazingly, my third pregnancy went to term. And beyond. Two weeks late and after many, many hours of struggle and pain and doctors’ interventions, I had an emergency, complicated C-section. Thankfully, the baby and I – my beautiful, wonderful son and I – lived. Then I lost two more pregnancies. I adopted two children then and we had our family.

Life went on, but the shame remained. I had many problems with my ovaries, ended up that they removed one in the end. Only now, with my kids all in their 20s, and after menopause, well beyond those shame-filled teenage years, do I see.

I look back and I see me as a teen. As a pretty young girl in the old photos I have. As a young, shapely woman-to-be. As a desirable and attractive person to the objective viewer. And I look back and feel those feelings, the ones I carried with me until just the other day. Those feelings of denigration and derision I had been offered when my brother decided to heap his venom on me that summer.

I realized something, just two days ago. I realized it in a flash of a moment that I might have missed had I not been paying close attention. I realized this: in the moment when D spoke those words, I absorbed them. I received them and accepted them. I swallowed them and buried them deep within me. His cruelty festered in my pelvis, grew into cysts on my ovaries, prevented pregnancies, caused monthly pain and his words grew into heaps of self-loathing in my soul.

I realized that I took the hit, took his projected seething self-hatred inside myself instead of pushing it back on him where it belonged. For some reason, I wouldn’t allow myself to turn around and see this for what it was – that he was emotionally and verbally abusive. I – like the scapegoat I was created to be, and like the compassionate empath that I am – decided to sacrifice my own self-esteem, my own self-worth on his behalf. Somehow, I decided that rather than hurting him, rather than causing him pain by challenging him or naming his cruelty out loud, I would turn it in on my self and endure the pain that he was trying so hard not to feel himself.

Two days ago, I named it. I spoke it out loud to my husband. I said something on behalf of the pain I held in my hips. I said, ‘D was absolutely cruel.’ My partner nodded in agreement as – and I kid you not – I FELT something shift in my pelvis. I felt the words I spoke unlock and set free the knots of pain that lie buried there. Something shifted, something changed. And at my core, I knew I had freed myself from this long-held, long-buried abuse.

This is how twisted a toxic family can be. This is how unkind. This is the kind of pain that some of us endure at the hands of relatives who say they are family but are actually unwilling to make a space in their group (or their hearts) for one of their own. And this is one more in a decades-long list of reasons that I am estranged from my genetic family. Can ya blame me? I don’t.

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