defining and re-defining a bit little word. originally performed at The Moth.
a death, a divorce, a secret identity
I am the child of divorced parents, which means that I grew up with not one, but two homes.
Let me take you through a typical Sunday night at each of these homes.
Sunday nights at dad’s started with the booming sound of his voice over the intercom. “Kids. My Office.” My siblings and I would scurry downstairs and gather on the floor in front of his desk. Then, the public shaming would begin. My dad had this end of the week ritual that we called “The Box.” He would spend all week collecting misplaced items from around the house—a toy, sweatshirt, notebook, one time our pet snake- and placing them in the box. On Sunday nights, my father would dangle a each object above his head and shout out the name of the item’s owner. “Purple colored pencil. Brianna. Worn sock. Trevor.” and so on. Whoever had the smallest pile at the end of the night would be awarded with the grand prize of $1 dollar (which he always reminded us to save). When “The Box” ritual was over, we would wash up and prepare for bed. My dad would count backwards from ninety as we brushed our teeth to make sure we weren’t cutting corners.
On Sunday nights at Mom’s house, we ate spaghetti. A great fan of alliteration, mom liked to match the first letter of the contents of our dinner to the first letter of the day of the week. That meant Spaghetti Sunday. I still remember how hard she laughed the day she discovered that we could incorporate our choice of utensils into this pattern—that’s right, we used spoons and spoons only for Spaghetti Sunday. I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to eat spaghetti with a spoon before but it is very difficult and very messy but so much fun for a six-year-old. When spaghetti was over, my brother, mom, and I would put on her over-sized sunglasses and sparkly t-shirts—sometimes mom would let me wear her high heels or pink lipstick—and we would blast Elton John and dance around the house. Then, my mother and I would put on matching pajamas and curl up in her bed eating ice cream while we fell asleep to South Park reruns.
One time, my brother and I were playing hopscotch outside mom’s house when my father pulled up in his car. “Get in,” he said. I was six years old, but I knew it was mom’s weekend and I wasn’t supposed to see dad for another couple of days. Before I could get Mom’s attention, my father yanked my brother and me into the car and drove away. Mom chased us down the street screaming until her legs gave in.
This was the first of many effective kidnappings. I would fall asleep at Mom’s house in Mom’s arms and wake up alone in bed at my father’s house. That’s not a feeling that anyone can get used to. I would wake up confused and walk downstairs to the kitchen where my father would be standing with a steaming cup of coffee. “I’m so glad you’re home,” he would say. This phrase made my blood boil every time. This didn’t feel like home at all. Home was at mom’s house where we were breathing in life—where there was love and laughter and warmth. Dad’s house didn’t have any of that.
The frequency and duration of these stays at dad’s started increasing. After one particularly long visit, my father dropped me off with mom and she was wearing an eye patch. Mom must have seen the concern on my face because when she bent down to hug me she said “Brie, you won’t believe the crazy adventure I just had. I was taken by pirates!” This was the first thing she said to me that I was certain was a lie. The dented car in the driveway was a dead giveaway.
The following summer, I went to sleep-away camp and waited on the steps of my bunk for five hours on visiting day before my counselor told me that mom wasn’t coming. My dad called that night to tell me that mom had an accident. Two days later it was life support. Two days after that, she was dead.
In the years following my mother’s death, night time was the hardest. I would lay in bed crying, longing for one more night in mom’s bed, in mom’s arms, in matching pajamas. One particularly trying night, I couldn’t get to sleep. I tiptoed over to dad’s room, my face salty and wet with tears, and asked “do you ever miss her?’ He looked me right in the eyes and said ‘Brianna, go back to sleep.”
After seven years of feeling like the wrong parent had died, I was called down to my father’s office. Naturally, I was expecting “The Box,” but this time dad had something new to share.
He explained my mother’s long history with drug addiction. How she had done most of her parenting stoned. How she overdosed on her way to visit me at camp. How it had caused her death. How he feared for my life whenever I got in the car with her. How he brought me to his house while she was in rehab.
How he had spent sixteen years trying to protect me. How he loved me more than anything in the world.
When he was done, my father came out from behind his bureau and hugged me, really hugged me, for the first time I can remember. It was this moment that I realized that home is not a place—it’s a feeling—and I was starting to come home.
If I Could Do It Over
If I could do it over, I would love Dad as much as I love Mom. I wouldn’t decide Mom is the better parent because she lets us eat Pixie Sticks for breakfast while Dad yells when I leave my toys in the living room. I would know there is more to love than skipping school and sneaking candy.
I would tell the social worker the truth, even if it meant Mom might not get custody. I wouldn’t lie and say I’m scared Dad might hit me.
I would tell Dad about everything happening at Mom’s. I wouldn’t feel betrayed when I found out he’d been listening in on Mom’s phone calls, searching for clues. I would know Dad could help Mom if I just told him she passed out behind the wheel again.
I would hug my soon-to-be stepmother instead of hiding her shoes. I wouldn’t tape a long list of ways to get rid of her to the wall of my tree house. I would appreciate that Marla would cook dinner for me when Mom was in rehab and Dad didn’t know how.
I would tell my mother it isn’t fair for her to demand that I never call Marla “Mom.” I wouldn’t hide my cheek with a pillow when Marla tries to kiss me goodnight. I would know Marla would be the only one listening to me when Mom and Dad were too distracted to parent.
If I could do it over, I would sit with my soon-to-be stepsister on the bus when she is nervous for her first day of second grade at a new school. I wouldn’t force Lana to sleep on the floor when we begin to share my room, even though I have a king-sized bed. I would know Lana would be the one to tickle my back in the middle of the night when I missed Mom so much that everything hurts.
I would recognize what a gift it is to have Dad wash the sand off my toes during getaways at the beach. I wouldn’t be so angry with him for taking us away from Mom. I would know Mom is too stoned to parent.
I would call Dad when I find mom passed out in her closet next to a bottle of spilled pills. I wouldn’t clean them up or place that blanket over her without telling anyone. I would know that everybody needs help.
I wouldn’t wish that Dad, not Mom, was the one to crash the car into a telephone pole.
I wouldn’t think the wrong parent died when they pulled the plug on Mom’s life support.
I would tell Dad I’m confused when my brother tells me he woke up to the sound of Mom’s boyfriend slamming her head into a dresser the night she died. I wouldn’t go mute for six months because I don’t know how to ask Dad, or anyone, about it. I would know there is more to the story of how Mom died.
I would say, “I love you, too” every time Marla says it first. I wouldn’t avert my eyes and run down the driveway when she sends me to the bus stop with a brown-bag lunch and an I Love You. I would know that, starting when I turn twelve, I will write Marla’s wisdoms down in a tiny yellow notebook and store it in my sock drawer.
I would circle ‘yes’ on the ‘will you go out with me?’ note Greg Lassen* passes to Lana in Mrs. Ontario's* fifth class. I wouldn’t start the rumor that Lana smells bad when I hear Greg likes her. I would know that when I have my first break-up at sixteen, Lana will build a roaring fire in our backyard for me to burn all of Marc Flynn’s pictures in.
I would listen to Marla when she tells me gently how to be a better daughter to her and a better sister to Lana. I wouldn’t tell her you’re not my mother or I don’t care about you or your kids. I would know how lucky I am to have her.
I would let Dad console me when he tells me Mom’s drug addiction is what really killed her. I wouldn’t lock myself in my room and cry alone. I would know how good a hug from him would feel.
I would kiss Marla’s convex belly when Dad says they are having a baby. I wouldn’t keep so quiet as my eyes fill up with tears and my heart fills up with love. I would know my love for Kate will be so full and abundant that it will spill over onto Dad and Marla and Lana, too.
I would tell Dad, and Marla, and Lana that I love them the second I am ready. I wouldn’t let my pride deprive them of that. I would know that they are the ones lifting me up all this time.
Even though I don’t deserve it.
If I could do it over, I would apologize for not saying it sooner when I finally muster an, “I love you, too.” I wouldn’t be so cavalier about doing it while signing off a family Skype conversation from my college dorm room. I would know that today, eight years later, Marla, Lana, and my father are still the most important people in my life.
At least now they know I know it.
*names have been changed to protect their privacy
A Tomboy and a Dollhouse
For my eighth birthday I received four gifts.
From Dad: Custom Nike hi-tops. An erector set. A soccer ball signed by Mia Hamm.
From Mom: A dollhouse.
Both of my parents thought they got me the perfect gifts that year. And they were both correct.
The best thing about having divorced parents is that you get two sets of presents on your birthday. The worst thing about having divorced parents is that you’re torn in two pieces. One piece is loyal to Mom, and the other to Dad.
This was particularly challenging for me because Dad loved me most when I walked off the soccer field with dirty elbows and scraped knees. He was happiest when he was timing me as I maneuvered through the obstacle course he set up in my backyard. And Mom loved me most when I dressed myself in hot pink leggings and glittered Converse. She was happiest when we would wear matching red lipstick and pucker our lips to sing “Kiss” by Prince.
I was five years old when my parents got divorced and even then I was able to recognize what an impossible task it would have been for one person to satisfy each of their visions for what a good daughter looked like. So, at five, I became two people. A sports-obsessed-backwards-hat-wearing-tomboy for Dad and a sparkle-loving-lip-gloss-wearing-girly-girl for Mom. Getting into character for each of my parents was easy. The real skill was required when it was time to change houses. “Just drop me off and I’ll walk around the back,” I would casually suggest. And then I would sneak into the tool shed at Dad’s or under the willow tree at Mom’s and swap my denim skirt and pink headband for a pair of breakaways and a sweatband. I did this Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend for four years.
I remember one time, when I was seven, I nearly blew my cover. I rang the doorbell at Dad’s house without changing out of my frilly socks. In a panic just before he could open the door, I bent down, ripped the lace from the top seam, and swallowed that decorative foot-trim whole.
My clothes-swapping ritual always felt clever. I could be a girly-girl and a tomboy — but never both at the same time. Mom was happy, Dad was happy, so I was happy.
But then, when I was nine, things began to really unravel. My mom died in a car accident on her way to visit me at sleepaway camp.
As Dad delivered the news about my mother’s death, I thought about my last moments with her, decorating my dollhouse. I thought about going to the toy store together to pick out miniature tables, chairs, and armoires. I thought about long afternoons in my bedroom rearranging the tiny furniture. I thought about hard she laughed watching me attempt to walk around in her heels. I thought about my brand new dress with the sunflowers on it that she got for me, that I would never get to wear. I thought about what my life would be like not only without Mom, but also without half of myself. I couldn’t let Dad see the other side of me.
My dollhouse was the only relic I took with me from Mom’s when I moved permanently to Dad’s. I knew it would be out of place in my blue room, and that it would confuse dad, but I just needed it there.
In the months following my mother’s death, I would wake up in the middle of the night missing Mom so much that my body ached. The only relief I could find was sneaking into the bathroom when dad was asleep and applying lipstick that I stole from my stepmother’s drawer. One particularly sleepless nights, I would pathologically rearrange the furniture in my dollhouse. On several occasions, I tried gathering up the courage to ask Dad to buy me a dress, but I never could.
Little by little, I pushed the girly-girl right out of me. It was too painful having her around. By the time I was ten I had pendulumed so far toward tomboy that I had completely stopped brushing my hair. My fourth grade teacher called my parents after she overheard me telling Tracy Traff* that it was okay for girls to pee standing up. I got sent to the principal when I pulled my pants down in the middle of class to prove to Jason Little* that I didn’t have a penis. In the ultimate display of my masculinity, I wore a tuxedo to my aunt’s wedding. Bow tie, cummerbund, and all.
One night, I couldn’t stand the sight of that dollhouse anymore. I hated how it sat on my dresser judging me and my sports t-shirts. So I grabbed the meanest, rustiest hammer I could find and destroyed my dollhouse with it. Whack! Whack! Whack! The splintering wood cut through my hands until they were bleeding.
There I was, finally destroying the only active reminder of the girl in me, but where was the liberation? Ever since I ditched that first charm bracelet for a Casio watch, I had been falling to pieces without knowing it. One divorce, one death, and one secret identity later, I was as broken as the dollhouse at my feet. I wanted desperately to feel whole, but how?
When my dollhouse was finally in pieces, I walked into the bathroom to wash up and looked in the mirror. My face was streaked red from using my bloody hands to wipe my tears. My eyes were glistening and my hair was long, shiny, and wavy. I still had that hammer in my hand. I looked like a warrior. A beautiful little warrior. And that is exactly what I was. What I saw in the mirror was tough and feminine. Athletic and delicate. Intense and pretty. I loved how I looked.
In that moment, I realized that I could be all of those things and still be me. And still be one person. Today, fifteen years later, I am strong, I am whole, and I am a woman. I still love what I see in the mirror. The destruction of my dollhouse gave me that gift.
previously published musings
mostly on family stuff
"Beautifully-written reflections on a childhood lived."