This post is in response to a prompt from Kelly at *Weekly Anamnesis.* I like Kelly’s word prompts to help me think of something to write. She is not picky about when someone uses a word. It can be a word from previous weeks, which I have done before. But today I am using “Realized” which is actually this week’s word. Anyone is welcome to use her prompts. Just go there and follow the instructions. I love to see what different people write about the same word prompt.
Ducky and Jennifer came into my life when I was six, I think. That would have made them four and three. (My brother was five, so we were all about a year apart in age.) Their father married my aunt, my mother’s sister. I do not remember being introduced. I do not remember wondering if I would like them or not. I only remember them being there.
The youngest specific memories I have of them was probably when I was seven. Ducky and my brother were in Kindergarten and in the same class at the local public school. I remember not having school one day, and I went to their Kindergarten. (We made snow ice cream that day.) I also remember going to their trailer when they both had chicken pox or measles. They were wearing socks on their hands and had on sunglasses. I never got any of the common childhood diseases, and my brother’s cases of them were mild, so I really could not empathize with their misery. I thought they were lucky to each have a pair of sunglasses. At that time I never realized how unlucky they were.
My aunt, Sue, who was Ducky and Jennifer’s stepmother lived with my family for a few months, or a year, or something before she met their father. I wanted to like her. She was nine years younger than my parents and quite worldly. But I did not like her. She lived with us when I was six, and all I remember is her being loud and laughing loud and being the reason for the only time in my life I ever got my mouth washed out with soap. She was not a doting aunt. I think she actually did not spend much time at our house, but was out “hunting.” (That would be looking for men. I’ll leave it at that.)
When Sue inherited step daughters, I had two new cousins close to my age. I should have loved that, but it was rarely that much fun to be at their house. Although it was a little more fun for them to be at my house, I still liked spending time with cousins from my dad’s family better. There was always tension in the house when my mother’s family was together. Even at six and seven I realized the tension. Ducky and Jennifer and I played, and we got along most of the time, but the tension in the background never made it the most pleasant experience for me. And I will admit to not always being a very good cousin to them. Three is a crowd. Being the oldest, I was in the position of power. I was not completely aware how this all played out, but I know that I was never the “3rd Girl Out.” One of them was always my buddy. Which one would change, but the other was often left out. Although I knew what was happening (or could at least understand it when not playing with them), I never realized how much it might hurt the one that was left out.
None of us were “big” girls. I was tiny, and apparently they both were as well, for they got my old clothes. Or maybe by the time they got to Jennifer, the clothes did not really fit, but she had to wear them anyway. I do not know. I remember one of them saying once, “Hand me downs. Hand me downs. All we ever get to wear are hand me downs.” This bothered me. My parents were not rich; they were poor, but I never thought of my clothes as being something miserable. In fact, I loved some of them and hated passing them on. It upset me so much that I begged my mother to not pass a dress to them that was my favorite. I have no idea what happened to that dress, but I think they did not get it. I never realized how horrible their life was and why they would say such a thing.
My family knew things were not good in Ducky and Jennifer’s house. We knew Sue was a tyrant. We knew Sue would make them weed their garden for hours on end as punishment. We knew that Sue would make them copy chapters out of religious books over and over as punishment. (Passages about children being obedient and respectful.) We knew that Sue was as bad or worse a person as she had always been. But we never realized just how bad. I remember driving places on many occasions when my parents would be talking about the situation and Jennifer and Ducky’s house. They said Sue “mentally” abused Jennifer and Ducky. They did not believe that there was physical abuse; we could see no evidence of it. I cannot count how many times both of my parents would say, “I wish mental abuse was easier to prove in court. Since there is no physical abuse, there is little we can do about this.” (And for the record, there were some ugly family dynamics going on here besides. Sue’s mother, my grandmother, was much like Sue, but in different ways. I plan to write about her someday. She held more power over my own parents, especially my mother, than I ever realized until years later. My parents getting involved in this when there was no hard evidence would have had devastating effects on our own family. It would have had devastating effects anyway, but it was not a risk they were willing to take when the outcome would likely be nothing.)
Ducky and Jennifer and I grew into teenagers getting along. We always mostly got along, but we got along more as we grew older. We were never best friends, though. The time spent together just was never that enjoyable for me because of the family tension. But my getting older did make me appreciate their plight a little more and realize that they were in no way in control of their own circumstances.
When I was seventeen the entire family was gathered at my grandmother’s house. It was summer, and the “foreign relatives,” who visited the United States about every three years, were there as well. Their children were about ten years younger than me, and although I loved them, when everyone was together, I hung out with Ducky and Jennifer. It was a typical time of family tension, but Ducky, Jennifer and I went to my grandmother’s bedroom to talk. We were teenage girls and had plenty to talk about. I had been attending a boarding school for high school. Ducky had spent her freshman year at the local high school. She wanted to call some people she knew from school, but both girls were terrified (my perspective) of using the phone without permission. I understood needing permission to make a long-distance phone call, but did not at all understand permission to call a friend for a few minutes. So I dialed the phone, and let her talk. Apparently while on the phone, someone in the “adult quarters” wanted to make a phone call. I think it was my grandmother. She made a big scene about the phone having people on it. I really do not remember how it all went down, but Ducky and Jennifer were in big trouble, and I was the culprit as always. (Sue and my grandmother always considered goody-two-shoes me as a bad influence.) I do not remember a single word of censure that either my grandmother or Sue said, but I remember we were leaving, and things were very heated. My parents and brother and I were standing in front of my grandmother’s house, and some kind of bickering or nit-picking was going on, and I turned around and yelled at my grandmother and Sue collectively. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I know it had to do with how stupid they were and how I was tired of all the family tension and they needed to get over themselves, etc. I did not look at anyone else, but I am sure the rest of the witnesses were shocked and ashen. NO ONE confronted Sue and my grandmother. Oh, my dad did periodically, but he tried to curb it for the sake of my mother. (Which I did not realize at the time.)
That was a wise move in many ways on my part, not the least of which meant that it would be five years before my family had anything at all to do with my grandmother or Sue’s family–other than Ducky and Jennifer. Sue would have prevented their contact with us, but the “foreign relatives” who were there made sure there was time that summer we spent together. And the next year Ducky, by a stroke of blessing from somewhere, attended the same boarding school that I did.
It was after the family blow-up that I learned all of those years there had been physical abuse–a lot of it–and things too horrible to imagine. Sue was sly enough to make sure it was not visible, and both girls had been warned and bullied into keeping quiet. And apparently there had been questions before about it from places of authority, in which my father had even been involved, but it came to nothing. The things I learned will not be repeated here; they are the stories of Jennifer and Ducky to tell as they see fit. And as the years have unfolded, I have learned even more. There is just too much to learn, or remember, all at once. And in the passing years, they have both become dear friends, among my dearest. And I regret some of my childish behavior toward them. My life was happy and good. When leaving the family gatherings that brought me emotional misery, I got to go home to a happy house with parents who treated me like a child should be treated; they did not. There is no way I could have understood their situation, but what is worse, I never realized how bad it was. If I had, if my parents had, I wonder what might have been different. I am quite sure my own behavior would have been different. But the question I ask myself it why was my behavior not different anyway? True compassion and kindness would have been evident whether or not I knew how bad their lives were. I was young, so some of that may possibly forgiven, but I definitely try to teach my children that there are lots of things in life we never realize.