Learning To Love You More




Assignment #14
Write your life story in less than a day.

Pennsylvania, USA



I was born in Pittsburgh, a week before Christmas in 1964. My mother picked my first and middle name out of the bible. I was brought home on Christmas eve, and put on the seat of a cushy chair with the seat cushion removed, for my four brothers and two sisters to see. My oldest sister was 10, my parents had 7 of us in 10 years.
My parents were French Canadian Catholic and Irish Catholic and they married in 1953. They didn't use birth control. My mother was afraid that my grandmother would yell at her because she was pregnant again, so she hid her four-month-pregnant belly with me inside at her little sister's wedding in Boston.
I remember a high chair with a teddy bear on the back of it. I remember my mother giving me a bath in the kitchen sink while brothers and sisters and neighborhood kids went in and out of the screen door in the summer. It went click and then bang. I remember a man at a baseball game gave me his empty cigarette pack to put the firefly that I caught in and that I sold it to him for a quarter. I remember sitting on my dad's shoulders and holding on with my hands on his forehead. I snuck into the dining room on my birthday and ate all of the chocolate frosting off my cake. Everyone laughed and Polaroids were taken. The kind that you had to wipe with stinky chemicals on a sponge. They'd ask me to add numbers and would marvel when I'd do it.
Before I went to school life was charming. When I was maybe 3 or 4 I had dark red leather t-strap shoes. They had a design made of holes on them. I was in love with those shoes. I very vividly remember a moment I had in them. It was sunny and I was standing in our backyard on one of the concrete squares that made a path in the grass. There were purple irises against the patio wall to my right. The concrete looked bright from the sun. I heard the buzz of a plane overhead. When I was very little I didn't get that planes made that noise, the noise seemed to come from the whole sky vibrating. I stared at my shoes for a long time and I felt great.
Things changed around the time that I started school. My kindergarten teacher had a british accent and a flaming red poofy flip and was mean to me because I was almost a year younger than everyone else. She thought I was too young and got into a fight about it with my mother at a parent-teacher meeting. I was happy in kindergarten when Tommy Matthews gave me a green ring with red stripes or when he and I held hands under our table or when it was my turn to bring in cookies and my mother came through and made the peanut butter ones with the Hershey's kisses on top that all the kids loved, which helped me out socially.
My first grade teacher Mrs. Nicollela was very formal and strict and I remember sort of making a decision that the right way to be in school was to be good and smart. I hung onto that "I'm smart" thing for years. Not that I'm dumb but one family myth about me goes something like: Even though she grew up in the suburbs in a Ryan home and spent all of her time in the woods or at a strip mall like the rest of us, she is somehow worldly. Has such potential. I would spend hours and hours and hours reading the Peterson's Guide to colleges, imagining how great it would feel once I got into an Ivy league school. It would be like coming home. It was like I wanted to "become" old money, which of course isn't possible.
My brother Paul started to have a damaging effect on me. When I was a toddler he made me scream and cry when he sent his robot with blinking red eyes down the hall after me. He poked the eye of my doll so it rolled around inside her head, it made her look hurt and freaky. He tripped me all the time, put a frog down my pants, cracked a real egg on my head instead of doing that trick where it just feels like an egg. He let me fall and get the wind knocked out of me when we were playing that trust game, where you close your eyes and fall backwards and the other person catches you. He started punching me in the stomach and calling me fat and ugly and told me a lot, once in front of neighborhood boys, that I was the only girl he knew who farted. He told me I was ugly most days, at least once.
My parents weren't helpful. When I was 6 or 7 my sister was in a beauty pageant at a fair. My other sister did synchronized swimming in a 4ft. above-ground pool there earlier in the day. Before the pageant started my dad took me and at least one of my brothers to find a bathroom. For some reason we walked around forever and couldn't find one. I think my dad thought the Port-a-John lines were too long. I had to go, really bad. I told my dad that a couple of times. We just kept walking around not finding any bathroom. Finally I shit my pants. I didn't say anything to anyone. When we finally found a bathroom I told my dad that I didn't have to go anymore. He didn't question that. We all sat on the grass on blankets to watch my sister in the beauty pageant. I started to smell. My brother Paul busted me and my brothers and the neighbor boys started to laugh and act disgusted and say I pooped my pants. My mother was really pissed off at me and dragged me by the wrist and yelled at me while she cleaned up between two cars in the parking lot. I mean I couldn't assert that I absolutely had to go to the bathroom. My feeling shitty about myself became literal.
I heard "you have such potential" a lot. In high school I started to get sick of it. Well, I had a breakdown so I was pretty much sick of everything. My parents had separated (memory of the deathly boring and hostile Saturdays we'd have, my dad turns the corner in the hall after a fight with my mother and punches a hole in the drywall, then seethes while he patches it) and my mother and I moved to the city together. She and I were by no means friends, and my self-esteem was so shaky by this point that I wasn't good at friendships. So I was so lonely that I lost it. I remember the exact moment. I was watching the news and they said that someone had strangled someone else with an extension cord. I think it really underlined my feeling of separation between people.
Not giving a shit ended up being the best thing to happen to me. Whereas in the 7th grade I was crushed because I didn't make the cheerleading squad-although I didn't expect to because I had become, like I was told I was, ugly. I mean I wasn't at all in touch with my body, my looks, my power-by 11th grade I had a real fuck you attitude. I ended up doing things like skipping classes at my all-girls Catholic high school and driving around in this girl Maria's white Jaguar with red leather interior, laying down in the back with my head up against the speaker. Maria was one of a group of us that were burnt out. Not from pot-smoking, but from unhappiness. We made art and dressed weird in other people's eyes and were not at all perky. For example, Maria wore rainbow-striped socks with toes and flip flops with her blackwatch plaid skirt. Nina was our friend too. We were all going to hang out after school once and were ready to go when Nina said she had to take a shit. We were all like- Oh shit Nina, we wanted to go. She said "Okay, I'll just wait Ôtil tomorrow." She meant it.
I ate with serious and slightly desperate pleasure-lots of chocolate, entire packages of Archway Rocky Road cookies, a Napolean a day when I worked at a bakery after school. I was depressed and scared and I would run all the way home from the bus stop through our sketchy neighborhood school nights after the bakery. I was also starting to pipe up.
I remember complaining at some family event that nobody really talked, that we didn't have "real" conversations. Everyone started yelling at me. I still do it, now over email.
I remember raising my hand and disagreeing a lot with one nun I had at Sacred Heart High School. Her name was Sister Elizabeth Ann. When I did this, she would get red splotches. They'd creep out from her blouse at the neck and keep moving up to her face. But she and I got to a point where I could feel a lot of mutual respect in our hellos in the hall.
I had no idea how to choose a college to go to and my parents were in bitter outerspace, so I did it pretty blindly. I didn't know what I wanted, I mean I just didn't know what I wanted in general, at all, so that made decisions difficult. I wasn't raised to know what I wanted, to want, because the prospect of seven kids wanting was too much for my parents.
I went to see a therapist when I was 16 because I was suicidal. When I told my mother that I thought about killing myself a lot, she said, "I can't deal with that right now." She sent me to her therapist. He would ask me how I felt and I had absolutely no idea what to say. He made me a list of feelings, he wrote a list on a memo pad. I put it on the right armrest of my chair, held it down with my right hand, and stared at it for a really long time trying to pick one. That's such a starting point for me. In my family we didn't have conversations about how our day was or talk about what we thought about things let alone how we were feeling. So I literally didn't know what words were options for answering the question: "How do you feel?".
So I ended up at a fairly conservative tiny liberal arts college in a small town in Central Pennsylvania. My piping up got much louder, and this was an odd place for that to happen in. I remember a professor telling me that I was a 60s throwback and that I should "go sail off into your blue sea", whatever that meant. When I said in a class that I couldn't imagine that I'd really feel like living after I had killed someone, even if it was about defending the country, that it didn't seem worth it or something because I wouldn't like life after that, someone said I should get out of the country then.
I remember when squirrel would chew through power lines and computers were so new that people forgot to save their work and there wasn't autosave. The lights would go out and people would scream in the computer labs because they lost their papers. We could go out to a lake in the spring and empty buckets of maple sap into an aluminum tank pulled by a tractor. We'd run to it, trying not to spill too much sap. Later we'd have pancakes and freshly-made syrup in the sugaring shack.
I remember sitting alone on cliffs a lot. It was often very windy and loud, sort of scary. I still had a lot of fear and pain in my body then. It was still so much that it was physical, and it made me tired a lot.
I snuck on a field trip to D.C. with my philosophy professor. He was a huge influence, because he said things like "you have to do what you're passionate about" and he helped me actually have the experience of being passionate about things. In D.C. we went on a tour of the National Gallery. When I was a kid my parents rushed us silently through art museums. Us kids did it for the hot dogs and chocolate milk in the cafeteria afterwards. I was so blown away in the National Gallery that, when that professor asked me what I thought, I just started laughing really hard. I said "now there's another entire world".
Even though my parents always talked about "the value of education", they weren't very supportive of actual learning. When my mom went to college in her 40s, she would try to talk to my dad about what she was reading. He made fun of her and wouldn't discuss things with her. I'd be exploding with excitement when my mom would pick me up from school for the holidays and she would act irritated, like she wanted me to shut up.
So I went to Germany. I hitchhiked, had hairy legs and armpits, sunbathed naked with my German boyfriend and his hippie friends. I remember yelling at him for taking an internship at a very conservative newspaper, asking him how he could work there when they had printed a photo and address of a women's shelter. I worked at a women's shelter at the time. I think I stomped out and walked an hour and a half in the snow to the train station and took a train back to my place. I lived in a different city. I didn't want to depend on him. I stomped out a lot.
I was with him from the time I was 18 until I was 25. He was the first person I really had sex with. I thought he was shallow and I remember constantly ending my sentences when I spoke with him with "Do you know what I mean?" We were also best friends and traveled a lot and craved seeing each other in a way that did not feel like a problem to me, it felt like a gift. We went to Spain and there was lots of sun and rocks designed by wind, hams hanging from bar ceilings. At his sister's house in Barcelona we had to sleep in twin beds and we struggled to hold hands. Someone's arm kept flopping down. There was also still lots of storming out, lots of doubt, I still thought he was shallow. I remember him crying once in the garden in the early evening in summer, just tearing up, and his bottom lip quivered. He felt really hurt because I was stingy with him. I didn't help him as much as he helped me. I didn't do concrete things for him as much as he did for me. I was afraid of being used.
When I asked my dad when he was visiting me at college-it was dark and we were driving back to my dorm after eating at some restaurant-"What did you love most about mom?", he said: "She was a good worker".
I came back from Germany in 1991 because my mom had cancer with a bad prognosis, and because I didn't want to spend my life in Germany. I had hit some wall there. Thomas and I were over, the last year was nightmarish with a lot of cheating. I'm very emotional, so I think 6 years in Germany was masochistic. My mother was sick for a year and a half and then she died. She had had a tumor in 1985 and had had surgery, chemo, and radiation. When it recurred, she didn't want to do any of that. She was at home the whole time, she never went to the hospital. I was so sad that it scared me, I didn't know that I could handle it. I still have dreams where I'm crying so hard that I can't breathe but I can't stop.
When I came back home my mother and I were really close. I had talked to her about shit in the past, and she had gotten happier and less jealous, and I had grown up plus her illness made us both unable to let anything get in the way. She was my best friend. It was probably the happiest time I've had, in a deeper sense, because that was the best relationship I've had with another human being.
I have her name-Mary-tattooed on my left shoulder. It's in a banner that's being carried by two bluebirds. I love it because it's so impossible for me to integrate her and that time into my life now, it feels like that and she are completely gone, invisible, but then there's the simple act of telling someone "it's in memory of my mother" that I have to do pretty regularly.
I also like that people aren't comfortable sometimes because they're not sure if it's my girlfriend's name and they're curious but afraid to ask.
I think that's the point I'm at a lot with people-I'm crabby and challenging. I bite and poke boyfriends and they think it's funny but then they get tired of it. I tell them I like to fight. I fight and I withdraw. I get bored a lot.
I have a job selling things on eBay to raise money for a non-profit. I work alone. It's quiet and geeky with all of the research and I'm in love with so many of the objects that I work with. So much that I feel loss when I have to send them to someone. Right now I'm in love with a little ceramic girl on skis with a fur-trimmed hooded coat. Her puppy is on the front of one of her skis.
I don't want to be told that I have potential. I don't want to compete. I don't want to be controlled.
I want to be just be, like those objects just are, and I'm hoping for another amazing friendship like I had with my mother.