Shells and Shoes
The youngest child isn’t always the “spoiled” one. Being the very much youngest of four girls, I had to learn my place rather quickly. I was not allowed in my older sisters’ room. I was not allowed to touch anything that belonged to any of them. I was not allowed to handle or help with the Christmas tree ornaments. I was not allowed…..not allowed….not allowed. It was clear that I was an annoyance simply because I was….there.
In spite of this, I always strived to be like my older sisters. I wanted to fit in. I wanted approval, so I wanted to emulate them.
My father used to take occasional trips from New York, where we lived, to Florida. I wasn’t sure who lived there and no one ever said. I never asked because no one ever answered my questions. When he returned from these mysterious trips (I now believe it was his sister who lived there) he would bring back with him some souvenirs as gifts.
He took one of those trips when I was less than eight years old, but more than five. He came back with beautiful shells and pieces of coral. One large scallop shell, with multicolored smaller shells in all different and interesting, fascinating shapes. He had three of them, one for each of my sisters. I was given a small, stuffed toy that looked like an alligator. I lost all control.
The damn burst, the temper flared, the hurt rose to the surface and would not be contained. I screamed. I cried. I told everyone how much I hated them and how sick I was of being the “baby.” “Why can’t I ever have pretty things? Why do I get a stupid toy?” I had never had a meltdown before. Not certain, but I don’t think I ever did again, either. Not in that household, at any rate.
They all stared. I was sent to my room by my mother. FINE. They had dinner. FINE.
I don’t care. Leave me alone, I hate you all. You think I don’t know that you treat me differently? You think, because I am younger, that I am somehow stupid and unaware of your exclusive club? I know all about it. And now YOU know that I know. So there
At some point my father came into the room with a bowl of ice cream. He said he was sorry and didn’t know that I might want the shells. I went to sleep and not a word was ever said again.
By the time I was twelve, we lived on Long Island. The oldest two were out of the house, the next oldest was going to go off to college in the fall. And my parents were approaching divorce…but that was also to come in the fall.
There was an occasion coming up…..a first dance? A recital? Maybe it was graduation from junior high? I don’t recall precisely. But dressy shoes were required. My mother took me shopping. I fell in love with a pair of black patents with a tiny little heel. She bought them.
I was in the kitchen with my mother. She was preparing dinner. My next oldest sister came in….livid. She had seen the shoes in the living room. “Those are for her? She’s too young! YOU never let ME have heels at that age!!! You are SO unfair!” Whoa. She is about to go to college. I got a pair of shoes………
My mother never raised her voice and said very little…always. This was no exception. My sister disappeared upstairs. My mother continued doing what she was doing. But something had changed. I was vindicated. I won that one without a single peep out of me.
Clearly, ours was a dysfunctional family or there would not have been such open rancor and competition over petty things. My parents were flawed people. We all are, certainly, but their flaws spilled into an entire family and, in spite of all the time and in spite of conscious exploration and examination of the causes and effects, the wounds bear scars forever.
In her last letter to me before she passed away, my mother wrote, “You try to tell your children you love them.” That one sentence was as close as she ever came to doing just that. Oh, and the shoes.