My grandmother had a toddler when her second daughter passed away at 21. Her second daughter left behind a daughter of her own who just turned one.
My grandmother saw to it to raise two little girls instead of one. That granddaughter was me and her little girl is whom I refer to as my sister despite actually being my aunt Debbie.
Growing up with Debbie wasn’t easy because she didn’t make it easy. Debbie was my first bully. She picked everything first and gave me the leftovers, always. If my father gifted me anything, she used it till the ‘wheels fell off’, great example? My bike, my portable radio, my dolls.. anything she could get her hands on.
When we made friends and they did not want to play with her, she forbade me to play with them, even would ‘tell on me’ if I did.. as far as tricking me, ‘they don’t like you, they call you names, fat and ugly’, she would say. Of course I would ask, and they would respond, ‘No! We like you, it’s her we don’t want to play with.’
I remember her telling me, ‘I’m going to Martha’s house’. We were living in the Dominican Republic, she was 11 and I 10. These were the days when children could run around the neighborhood unsupervised and tragedy wouldn’t strike. Martha lived in the ‘next’ neighborhood, for a child this could be about a 10 minute walk.
I was surprised because Martha was my friend and so I prepared to go with her, ‘you’re not invited’ Debbie said. When she left, I called Martha’s house. ‘Debbie is going to your house and she said I’m not invited.’
Martha: ‘I didn’t invite her and what she said isn’t true. You’re always welcome in my house. You’re my friend.’
Turns out she went to talk shit about me. What some children do to tarnish the reputation of others, leading to isolation… the Modus Operandi of bullies.
She didn’t keep friends as a child so that was a testament of things to come in her adult life.
She was violent and ferocious with her words and hands. Small things would ‘set her off’. Disagreeing with her stance, talking to ‘her friends’, even ‘looking’ at her things would ignite conflict.
My grandmother’s response? ‘Matense’ trans: ‘fight it to the death’.
What would today’s parents say to that strategy?
This was the reason why as we grew she had hers and I had mine, unlike many sisters.. ‘sharing’ was not possible with her.. a conversation, a game, an experience, friends.. so I learned to create my own world.
We separated when we entered high school, she went to live with her sister, who I came to discover was her bully, so she would tell me when we came together years later. Life huh? And I went to live with my father and his family.
Looking back, when it came to the treatment she gave me… there really weren’t any tender moments I can recall that can balance or ‘cancel out’ the crap I lived alongside her in my childhood. Yet there were moments I can’t forget that affected her, like her waking me up at midnight in tears because she wet the bed and mom promised to beat her if she did it again. ‘Help me change the sheets’ she would cry.. I remember the countless beat downs at the hands of her mom, my grandmother for the slightest thing.. I somehow was untouched because I didn’t ‘talk back’, didn’t challenge my grandmother’s authority, didn’t sneak out, wasn’t rebellious, wasn’t dark skinned, was the orphan daughter of her beautiful young daughter taken too soon. It’s as if Debbie was my ‘whipping boy’ without even realizing it.
My grandmother wasn’t a happy woman, smiles and laughter were not her norm. Debbie was her 6th child and came along at her 42nd year of life from the man she would verbally ‘fight’, every encounter they had. Her stormy relationship with my grandfather is what I thought Love stories were about and a lesson UNLearned by me at 42..
You should never have to fight to be loved.
Debbie paid for her misery and in turn I paid for Debbies.
Looking back on her life, I could say it continued to be unfair. I observed from the sidelines how mental illness rapidly took over as she lost custody of both of her son’s from two failed relationships.
She went from being an NYU student to someone you could mistake for a homeless person, unclear and incoherent speech, disheveled appearance, a size 24 where there once was a size 8. I’ve learned that psych-meds bloat the body. I can only imagine how this adds to her worries. Like all the women in my family, maintaining a svelte figure is literally ‘life’, you are nothing if not your body.
There were years when ‘checking in’ to a psych ward was the norm, every time an obstacle presented itself, we knew where to find her. The only challenge, which hospital?
My grandmother claimed she just wanted attention and labeled her ‘sinvergüenza’ – trans: ‘shameless’
Truth is I challenge any Latin culture to say that ‘mental illness’ has not been romanticized.
For Latin women, losing your mind for a man, how romantic? Losing your mind after a child’s death, how romantic? Losing your mind? ‘expected’. A form of cultural gaslighting.. the fragility of the female mind at the most tragic moments of her life.. It’s depicted in many telenovelas, described in many boleros, salsas, and merengues.. losing one’s mind is ok yet as long as it doesn’t happen in your family.
And that was the problem, or should I write, our family’s problem.
But it isn’t. For the most part, that generation of sisters aren’t as close as sisters could be.. but what some would call ‘fate’, changed that for Debbie and me.. we were each other’s sister.
Now in our 40’s, both childless and despite being on different mental wavelengths, I’ve forgiven my bully. I learned to love and care for Debbie.
With every act of kindness towards her, I’m undoing the pain of the past.
I can thank the woman that raised us.. she introduced us to faith, to have it, and demonstrate it, to love your brothers and sisters as you love yourself could be the answer towards peace.
After all, if ever I found myself in that state, I would want someone to care and love me as if I were their sister.