I’ve been thinking a lot about life as a story lately. Probably because I have my head so far up my book these days that I sometimes forget the outside world is even there. But it’s also a fitting metaphor. A way to frame your experiences, and maybe gain some perspective. Everyone is the hero in their own story.
Here’s how the hero looks in mine:
Highly educated, hard-working intellectual puts her career on hold to fulfill a lifelong dream of having children. Having survived sexual assault and emotional abuse, plus the usual doinkery that comes with dating after 30, she finds happiness in an unconventional relationship with a man 11 years her junior. He is not as educated as she, but their personalities mesh, and their quirky relationship quickly turns to love. She’s not getting any younger, though, and already has a host of reproductive issues, so they opt to have children first, and marry later.
As she has waited so very long to have children, she is unwilling to compromise her beliefs in how they should be raised. So she makes yet another unconventional choice: She asks her partner to stay home and watch the children while she pursues a mixture of telecommuting and freelance jobs so that she can be home with the kids. Eventually, her partner is able to take on a job working weekends. They get engaged. All is well, if not 100% stable, when she is laid off. Things begin to look dark for our little family. Still, our plucky heroine doesn’t give up hope. She works the job boards, applying for dozens of positions a week, taking on every scrap of freelancing work that comes her way, knowing that eventually things will look up again.
Sounds good, right? You pull for this girl. Now, look at the story again through my grandmother’s eyes:
Spoiled only child milks parents’ goodwill by living at home while earning not one, but two college degrees in a largely unprofitable, impractical field in order to avoid adult responsibility. Finally, she moves out — only to live in sin with a younger man. (She claims to be engaged, but can never produce a ring. Well, when you give the milk away…) When that relationship fell apart, as we all knew it would, she shacks up with yet another guy. Finally, she stops raining shame upon the family by marrying — and then divorces him a year later! Kids these days have no idea what hard work really is. They just give up when things get rough.
She dallies with yet another younger boy before finally getting knocked up (don’t tell me that wasn’t an accident) by her scandalously younger (and long-haired! Jesus wept!) boyfriend. To add insult to injury, a few years later they had another child. No talk of a marriage license — and it would only take a few minutes at the courthouse, so obviously they don’t plan to get married. He probably won’t marry her, and why should he? He’s got it pretty good; she’s slaving away to support him while he’s a “stay at home dad.” Which we all know is code for “lazy bum.” It’s no small wonder that they don’t live in a trailer. Not only is she casting a black stain on our good name — she’ll ruin her parents’ retirement and suck away their life savings, mark my words. Shameful. Those children never stood a chance, the poor dears.
Hell, she even missed the best parts of the story. She died shortly after Kai was born. She has no idea that I got laid off and the kids are now on Medicare — she’d be eating that up.
I came across her last letter to me, a welcome baby card for Kai, right before Christmas. In a few short paragraphs, she managed to bash me, R, and my daughter with breathless accuracy. (I’m sure she’d have found something wrong with the baby if she’d ever met him.) She sent the check for Kai’s savings to my dad, she said, presumably because she didn’t trust me not to blow it on myself. She told me she couldn’t in good conscience give me my inheritance when I was in such an unstable relationship. (R and I have been together nearly a decade.) She even implied that Anya is mildly retarded, and that I was failing to get her the help she needs.
At the time I received this letter, I got mad, but set it aside. F- her and her money. I’d only started writing to her so she could know her great-grandchildren, since she likely wasn’t going to live to see any children my cousins might have. But who needs this sort of abuse? As it turns out, I didn’t receive an inheritance at all, so at least she didn’t throw her money away on the likes of me.
Coming across this letter again at such a low point in my life, though, was another matter entirely. I began to see — really see — myself through her eyes. And I thought…what if she’s right? What if I’m forgiving myself my sins because that’s what people do? What if I am as bad as she always thought I was?
Not everyone lives happily ever after. What if I am one of those people? What if I do not deserve a happy ending? I’d always thought I was doing everything “right,” but look at how things turned out. Was I just being selfish and blind, this whole time? And now there are children! How dare I bring children into a life I was so ill-prepared to sustain?
Over the next few days, however, I began to see things more clearly again. This woman knew virtually nothing about me. I’d cut her out of my life many years previously, for precisely this sort of behavior, so basically all she knew of me was the narrative she created from the few facts that filtered down to her. Would she have thought so badly of me for asking for a divorce had she known the circumstances behind it? A few months before, I’d missed a period; my husband, thinking I was pregnant, told me he wanted me to have an abortion. (There were a host of other reasons, big and small, but that was the beginning of the end.) My grandmother was devoutly Catholic. I have to think that, in the greater scheme of things, divorce was a lesser sin in her eyes than abortion. But perhaps not. She never seemed to care as passionately about motherhood as I do — as I have, for as long as I can remember.
Though the people at her funeral seemed to think the world of her, there are plenty of other people who would tell you what a mean-spirited person she could be. She viewed the world through a very bitter lens, it seems. I feel sorry for her for that. The world is a very ugly place when you look for the worst in everyone.
And that’s when I realized the key thing she’d gotten wrong, the thing she always got wrong about me. I have always operated, as much as I could, from a place of love. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. I had children not as a reflection of myself, or to create mini-mes whose accomplishments I could brag about, but so I would have more family to share my life with. If money meant more to me, I’d have more. If my career were all that important to me, I’d have a better one. I never gave a crap about any of that stuff, though. I wanted a family. So I had one. It didn’t come as easily to me as it does to other people. I’ve had to jump through some hoops, make some adjustments to the “standard” way of doing things. But I pulled it off.
She was always so worried that I was going to ask her for money. I never asked her for a dime. All I ever wanted was for her to love me. But she didn’t. And that’s not my fault.
So I’m throwing away that stupid letter. The best way to deal with these feelings, I think, is to forget she ever wrote it, and to live life on my own terms. She was a nonentity in my life when she was alive, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let her haunt me now.
Should I encounter anyone else who wants to look down on me because of who I am, where I live, and how I conduct my affairs, well, I’ll allow that they are entitled to their opinions, but I’m not obliged to sit and listen to them. You do you. I am not you. So I’ll do things my own way, thanks.
Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I will never get my head above water financially. Maybe I will scrape by for the rest of my life. But damn it, there is more to life than money. Time to start focusing on those things, because when I’m gone, I want to leave something more behind than a balanced checkbook.
That’s the mindset I’m entering into 2017 with.