Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Posts tagged ‘childhood’

Airport Nightmares

images

I will admit to being scared – I am acutely frightened these days of my status as an immigrant but in truth, I have felt this way since childhood.

When I was six, my mother took her two daughters from our home in Scotland to meet our ship captain father in Alabama. We flew into a New York airport with our British passports and went through customs/immigration screenings with everyone else but this time we were pulled out of the lineup. We were made to follow two people down a hallway into a larger room with a curtained off area on one side. I remember looking at my mother who had gone pale under her tan. We had made this transatlantic trip a few times to meet my father in the US without having to undergo this process. She nodded to me. “Take that baby’s hand,” she said. Like the good daughter I was brought up to be, I grabbed my four-year old sister’s hand. Mother and children were separated into two cubicles.

“Strip to your underpants,” a man said to us.

I remember helping my sister off with her dress. She was too small to undo the buttons.  Her hair snagged on a button causing her to cry when I tried to pull the dress over her head. She kept crying as I took off her shoes and socks. She looked tiny huddled into the corner of the shelf acting as a seat even to my almost as tiny six-year old self. I pulled off my tartan trousers and my top, unbuttoned my school shoes, to sit next to her. Eventually, I cried too.

There was a shuffling sound so I peeked through the curtain into the room. More people had entered, mainly men.

“Mrs. Young, come out here,” a man called out.

My mother came out of her cubicle.

Vicky, my sister, called out, “Mama? Mama?”

Mom turned around. Her face was paler still. She motioned for me to pull Vicky back into the cubicle. She was wearing her bra and panties. Under the bright lights before a group sitting in chairs. I heard them laughing. Settling my sister, I sneaked back to look through the curtains.

“Take everything off,” said the man. I watched my mother strip in front of these men and women, probably US Customs and Immigration agents. I do not know what other indignities my mother had to endure. Vicky was screaming at this point and I was so scared I wondered if I was going to die. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening and who these people were but I knew mean when I saw it.

Clutching my sister to me, I heard a man say, “Get the kids.” Mom came into the cubicle and one at a time she paraded us in front of the people. She was still naked. Vicky pulled against Mom’s hand trying to escape, I guess, until Mom picked her up. There was a defiance in my mother’s gesture. I pushed her hand away, wiping my face clean with my top, to walk out on my own. My brain has a snapshot of the group sitting, uninterested, talking among themselves, oblivious to my terror.

Shaking and crying, the three of us were allowed to dress and leave the airport.

We never talked about this. Nightmares of being naked in a confined cage surrounded by giants plagued me into my thirties and have restarted.

When I was 18, I applied for American citizenship. To accept a scholarship to college and to never have to go through this again.

I have written this as I remember the event, devoid of most emotion and description. Because a part of my six-year old self did die that day. I hate New York and I hate airports, and I hope no other six or four or thirty-three-year old ever has to go through this.

Good Enough

redhead copy2

I’ve had many opportunities to think about perfectionism lately. Being from a family of overachievers, I struggled with it from toddlerhood. I keep thinking I have it in the bag but … not so true.

I remember mimicking other teenagers when I first immigrated to America. The stress to fit in was so great, I would cry walking home from high school. Maybe if I was perfect, I would get invited to sleepovers. Instead, I got a red nose and pimples from the stress and sleep deprivation.

I remember the time I said to my first husband, Numero Uno perfectionist art director, “I’m not a size 4. I’m a size 8. Get over it. I have.” There was a wonderful freedom in that statement. He wasn’t so sure. “You could eat less,” was his response. Spaghetti Carbonara or perfection? Not a difficult decision. My stranglehold on perfection slipped.

I remember the interview for admissions to an educational program. They asked, “What do you want to get out of the program?” I said, “I want to be a B student.” Their mouths fell open. They looked kind of dumbfounded.  I had gone through graduate school with a 4.0 GPA and just didn’t want to waste energy making As in everything. I had a pinkie finger hold on perfectionism.

In my counseling practice, my yoga classes, and teaching positions, I emphasized the thoughtful use of energy. Along the lines of, “You have 100 units of energy in a day, a week, a month, year, or lifetime, and you decide how you allocate your resources.” Most people would look at me with a blank face but some people would get it – start prioritizing what they were doing, how they were using their time and energy.

Then this year, some of my favorite celebrities died. Alan Rickman. David Bowie. Some friends and clients died or developed major health setbacks. An epiphany slapped me in the face. “Damn, this life is finite. I really don’t have time for perfectionism.”

That’s not saying I’m a slacker. Well not most days. I still like taking a day out of each vacation and spending it in my pajamas. I can plop down in front of the SCIFY channel for a good six plus hours with a bag of chips. I am proud of myself for letting myself enjoy those times without judgment. At some point, I get up, stretch, and do something productive. But I’m not exhausted with the continuing judgment of Being The Perfect Whatever (you fill in the blank).  Most things in life are not perfect and don’t need to be perfect.

I think I wanted to be perfect because I was afraid. Being me wasn’t enough. If I picked up a new career, friend, lover, hobby, I had to be perfect at it right away. Immigrant, curvy, bad hair, dyslexic me is ImPerfect. Seeing that on the screen makes me cringe. Now I want to be Good Enough.

Last holiday time, I gave a reading from my book and it was awful. Really awful. I stuttered. I stammered. I lost my place. I forgot my own story. When I finished, the packed bazaar was silent. Good bloody grief. Perfectionism triggered flop sweat. I wiped it off and joined the other authors in a dance lesson around the bazaar. It was okay. No one died. I didn’t sell any books but next time …

Life will go on. And life will be easier and more productive if I am not using my energy on the impossible goal of perfectionism.

Do you struggle with perfectionism?

“Now?” “No not yet.”

blog41

When anyone asks me to describe my childhood, I have a stock answer. “We had a childhood written by Stephen King starring Cruella DeVille and Captain Ahab.” That usually shuts them up. It’s painful when you don’t have the All-American-Family portrayed by Norman Rockwell. I have the European-Holocaust-AbsentShipCaptain-family portrayed by Bosch and Dali.

My dislike for my mother, Cruella, swarms like a soul-sucking tornado as Mother’s Day approaches. My mother died in 1998. The whole shebang was surreal. Mom had been dying three times a year for a decade. She had deathbeds in Alabama and California; places I could not get to without long expensive plane flights. But I tried. I really tried for the first couple of years. Then I said, “Fuck it.” With an eye on being the good daughter, I lobbied my husband for Mom to come live with us. He said, “No. I am not having that woman who caused you so much pain live with us. I can’t watch her hurt you.” He left the room, slammed every door in the house before driving off in his rusted out Camaro. I sat in our house still rattling with his anger. Okay, that was a resounding no-go.

So time passed; Mom continued to have near death experiences. My sister went to live with her. I sent money secreted from my own account but a few times from the household account. Ten years passed until one day I received a phone call from my sister. “Mom is dying. She’s not going to make it through the night. Get on a plane.” Uh-huh. My sister rambled while I rolled my eyes. I don’t remember why Mom was “dying.”

The next day, I received another phone call. “Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it … “ I finished the sentence, “Through the night.” My sister yelled until she hung up.

My sister called again on the next day. I looked at the caller ID, answered nonplused, “Don’t tell me. Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it through the night.” My sister was all kinds of pissed. “Look call me when she’s got one foot through death’s door,” I said and hung up.

The rest of the week passed into the weekend. Monday around a quarter to one, my father called me. We chatted in a weather-report kind of way before he said, “Well she did it.”

“What?”

“Your mother died thirty minutes ago,” he said.

I stood looking at the phone, examining the soft blue hue, feeling the weight of the receiver in my hands, and inside … nothing. Then both of us started laughing. “Oops, I misjudged this,” I said.

“She was dramatic,” he said. We hung up. Big portions of my life began. I felt free. Open to the many different possibilities of living without the specter of her cruelty.

The loss did not hit until ten years later when it was safe to mourn. I was writing a short story based on a fragment of memory – an interaction with Mom where not one character in the story was sympathetic. Mom’s motivations were beyond my understanding but I knew the event happened. I looked for explanations of Mom’s behaviors in books, class notes, newspapers, and family albums. I found them. With that information, her actions, some good but mostly horrific, made sense. Compassion for her battled my history of contempt, grown from the minefield she dug. The confusion caused my gut to knot, my head to pound, and sizzled my dreams to the point of night terrors. When my perceptions of the world have reorganized so I don’t feel like I am peeling off my skin, I’ll tell you.

Mom would say to me, “To know everything is to understand everything.” Maybe she was giving me a way to view her life and behaviors in a larger context.

My therapist would say to me, “All behavior is productive.” Maybe he was asking me to stop with the duality of right and wrong.

They were both right. I weep for my mother, the no-escaping tragic course of her life, the bad turns she took, and the relationships she blew. I weep for myself, the mother I never knew until she died, the things we could not do together, and the long years we spent hating each other. On this Mother’s Day, you can celebrate or feel nothing, mourn or let it go, I will support you either way. Not everyone has a Rockwell family.

Tag Cloud