The long road home

"Forget it. Just...don't even try to help. Let me do it."

The clipped contempt with which my dad speaks to my mother for what I've counted is at least the fifth time this weekend brings the slow simmer of anger in my chest to a rolling boil.

Both her and I are silent. As is the case when he corrects her speech. Or when he nearly shouts with anger over some little thing that has made him feel small. In a family of four strong-willed women, my dad does what he can to hold onto power. With my mother, he needs to be right. Any chance to gloat or one-up her he takes with a noisy fanfare. When he tries to make the fool of my mom by rallying the support of one of his girls, he is often met with a silent room. None of us approve of his behavior, but almost all of us have given up that fight.

Twenty years ago, our spars were frequent. I was the first child and so the first to rebel, the first to funnel my anger at them. For a period of a few years, we fought all of the time. Sometimes with my mother, but mostly with my dad. Who can even remember about what now, but what I do remember was the way the red in his face would deepen with rage and how his hazel eyes glittered as my stubborn silence persisted or my angered protests grew louder. Most fights would end with a trip to the kitchen, where either they or I would pick out the wooden spoon with which I was to be punished. Bent over, I learned to stare at a singular point on the wall, breathing through the sharp whacks to the fleshy parts of my behind and forcing the tears to stop until I was sent to my room. I remember the terror I felt the two times that he reached heights of anger that were foreign even to me. Once, a whipping with the belt in front of an audience and another time, a sharp slap to the face in the cool silence of the night, I lived those years with a bitter resentment that I can still taste.

At that age, I was angry all of the time. I had no friends, I hated my school, and I took it out on my family. At school, I tried to be as small and inoffensive as I could to stave off the merciless teasing of my classmates. I was new to that school and just a few pounds shy of being the fattest girl in my grade, so I knew that one wrong step outside of obscurity would make life intolerable.

So, at home, I fought. Those three years before puberty hit were a constant war of wills. Me, fighting nonstop with my parents and sister, and my parents angry, exasperated, and confused about what could possibly have gone wrong with their daughter. But sometime around 13, things just changed and we came to an unspoken truce. I guess like most girls my age, I learned to turn the anger inward, and grew tired of the fighting.

Someone once said to me, "Your family doesn't just push your buttons - they created them." When I see them now, and especially when I return to my hometown, the anger that I seem to have buried surfaces as if it had never disappeared. With just one wayward comment from either of them, my stomach clenches and I become tight and closed. As an adult, my relationship with my family is that of friendly acquaintances. They know the broad sketches of my life - where I live and work, who my friends are, and on occasion, who I'm dating. But beyond that, the yawning chasm between me and what they know about me stretches on. Every interaction are so fraught with memory that their words and actions can't help but be seen through my magnifying glass of resentment and yearning.

But, the question of whether or not we love each other has never actually been a question. We still laugh together, express joy and sadness and concern for each other, speak to each other from time to time and see each other several times a year. I feel their earnest desire to love me for who I've become, even as I also see them struggle to accept some of the fundamental basics of my adult self, just as I struggle to see them as whole, flawed human beings who are trying their best just like me.

Last night, tears rolled hotly down my cheeks as we watched a heartrending scene in a movie where a son is reunited with his parents after years of forced separation. He kneeled before them, his happiness and decades-long desire for them to see him for who he had become as an adult overcoming him. I couldn't help but recognize my own story in that scene, and fraught with longing, I looked at my parents seated next to me in the dark like two waving blots of color on a fading horizon.


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