Chapter 4 - AJ AF! (Part 3/3)
Although the new man in our lives was doing just about everything right, I still held onto a certain degree of skepticism, because my mom and sister’s well-being depended on it. That may have been 100 percent untrue, but that didn’t matter to me. He did everything right. He was kind to my sister and me, and he made our mom happy, but I’d become the man of the family by then and wasn’t ready for that to change. The guy even bought me an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas that first year, yet I still wasn’t ready to accept him in with open arms. Okay, maybe he shouldn’t have wrapped the gift in cheap, white wrapping paper, because I totally knew what it was before I even opened it, but he was a bachelor raising three kids of his own, so the fact that he even wrapped it should probably be commended. I was around nine years old, and as badly as I’d wanted that Easy-Bake Oven, it didn’t mean I was ready for a new dad. Also, the whole idea of accepting another man into my life named Steve, just like my dad, was all too much to process, and I was a stubborn kid.
I am my mother’s son.
I made some bomb-ass brownies in that Easy-Bake Oven though!
As for the “other” man in my mom’s life, it would take more than a flashy gift to earn my trust!
What I didn’t realize in those early years is that while I was taking on a great responsibility, I was also taking on all of my mom’s bullshit and my baby sister’s as well. My mom was broken by the divorce and insecure. She was still a great mom to us, but she was understandably different. My sister was the baby of the family and the center of everyone’s universe, including mine. Unhealthy patterns were established in those early years that would continue for decades to come. I see that now, but back then, I was happy to do whatever I could to protect the women in my life. I wanted my mom to be happy and I wanted to keep my sister safe, so I did everything I could to make sure those things happened, regardless of the personal cost to me. As I got older, I realized that I simply couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t healthy for me, and it wasn’t healthy for either of them.
In those early years, the concept of boundaries wasn’t really something anyone talked about in rural Ohio and certainly not in our family. Oprah wasn’t living her best life just yet, and Will Smith wasn’t on Instagram, so I wasn’t receiving the information I needed to create a healthier environment for myself. Also, if you don’t follow both of them on Instagram yet, go do it now! Their words have a way of piercing through my thick skull and landing directly on my brain in a way that sticks; they truly are brilliant.
I now know that my day-to-day life wasn’t all that different from the lives of most kids. My mom was raising two children all by herself, working in a factory and enlisting the help of our grandma Corky, who conveniently lived two doors down at the time. Also, our grandma was alive then, which certainly helped. (P.S. She’s dead now. Well, because she died. We’ll get to that later.)
I knew that I was loved, and I understood the importance of family, but I was not aware of the importance of self-love. That would come back to bite me in the ass as an adult.
To this day, Kari doesn’t remember our parents ever being married, which is probably why she’s experienced so little deferred trauma from that period of our lives. She was about four when they split, so not much in her world changed.
For me, it was during this part of my life that I became an intense people-pleaser and a nurturer. I’m still not sure where the people-pleasing thing came from, but the nurturing stuff came directly from the heart and soul of our family: my grandma Corky, before she, you know, died.
Granny C, as we often called her, short for Corinne, was the glue that held our family together. She was the perfect balance of strength, compassion, and grace. I idolized her and looked to her for guidance at a time when my mom, now raising two kids as a single mother while working third shift in a factory, was doing everything she could to just keep our family afloat. Grandma was my safe space; she was the calm at the center of the storm that had become our family life.
Conveniently, my grandparents lived two doors down from our own house, so Granny C was always just a short walk away. While mom worked five nights a week, Kari and I would sleep at our grandparents’ house. We shared a room in the basement. There were actually three bedrooms down there, but one had both a really creepy oil painting of John Wayne hanging on one wall and a poster of Uncle Sam pointing with the words “We Want You” on the other. You see, Uncle Sam had set his sights on me years ago; there was really nothing I could’ve done to escape him.
Well, I guess I could’ve paid my taxes, but then I wouldn’t have this ironic plot point to share with you, so thanks Uncle Sam, you bastard!
As kids though, years before money would ever make its way onto our radar, we were far more afraid of the creepy John Wayne painting. No matter where we would go, he was ALWAYS staring right at us.
NO THANKS, COWBOY!
The second bedroom had a tanning bed in it. My grandma was a bit of a trailblazer and had run a tanning salon out of her basement for a few years, and after going out of business, she had decided to hold onto one of the beds for personal use. Tan N Glow was only the second tanning salon to open in our county in the mid-1980s, and even though it didn’t last long, it showcases perfectly the type of woman my grandma was. Sure, she was helping people develop skin cancer, but she was an entrepreneur, dammit!
Also, no one really knew about that whole cancer from tanning beds thing until years later, so I don’t hold that against her.
So sharing a room seemed like the best option for my sister and me. It was a far better option than having to sleep with one eye open or waking up with leathery, cancerous skin.
Side note: Tanning beds are bad, and you should always use sunscreen when you spend any significant amount of time outdoors. I felt compelled to say that.
Our mom won custody of Kari and me, because we were totally a prize to be won, so we stayed with her for the most part. Every other weekend was spent at our dad’s house. Since our mom worked third shift, this meant we only actually slept in our own beds the other two weekends of the month. Five nights a week, we were at our grandparents’. As our schedules were thrown into chaos and we were being passed around every few days, my sister and I bonded in a way most siblings never do. Even in our own home, a house with four bedrooms, we preferred to share. We relied on each other and I liked feeling important. I would prove the beliefs I’d accepted after my brother’s statement outside of Radio Shack to be false. I would protect my sister, and she would never feel the way he’d made me feel.
We never really talked about the divorce as children and weren’t aware of the impact it was actually having on us. Kari had the luxury of ignorance, having been too young to remember a time when our family was a single unit.
I had a very different experience.
It would’ve been nice to have talked things through with a family counselor or maybe a priest at our church, but counseling wasn’t something people in rural Ohio were big proponents of in the late eighties, and the Catholic church wasn’t exactly a big fan of divorce. So I was left to deal with the repercussions of my parents’ decision on my own, and I did the best that I could. The most clear way that I could see value in myself was as an older brother to my baby sister Kari, so that’s what I focused on.
Being her big brother has been the greatest honor of my life. However, it has also been the source of the deepest pain I’ve ever known. Fortunately, it’s molded me into the man I am today, and I am thankful for it all. My older siblings impacted me and I impacted her. How we all choose to love each other as adults is up to each of us. I never had to forgive my brother, because I know his words were that of a kid. I’m trying to forgive my sister; her words were spoken as an adult.
I’m trying to rewrite our story because I need us to be okay.
She’s embedded in my DNA, in my soul.
I love her, and I’m working on finding a way to fix us. I need my baby sister back in my life.
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