I’m luckier than many. I am born into a family that loves me. I am my parents’ first and only child, though that wasn’t mean to be. When I’m three, my mother is pregnant again. In preparation for the growing family, my parents build a house in the better, newer side of town and we move there. I can feel the baby kicking inside my mother’s belly. I know I’m getting a brother or sister.
And then it goes wrong. I’m sent to stay with my mom’s best friend for a day or two. When I come home, suddenly my mom isn’t pregnant anymore, and I don’t know why. Mom cries a lot. I hear my dad on the phone telling someone that she’s having one of her “bad days” and won’t make it in today. So an only child I remain.
But in that brief time when I thought I’d have a brother or sister, that small window where I feel the baby kicking, I ask my parents where babies come from. And, bless their hearts, they tell me the truth, even if I can’t really understand it. So when we’re on vacation that summer in a little religious town on the shore of Lake Huron, the waitress doesn’t recognize me as local and asks, “Where do you come from, little girl?”
Big mistake. She shouldn’t ask things she doesn’t want to know.
“My daddy put his peanuts in my mommy’s belly button,” is what I say. I’m told we have a different waitress the rest of the meal.
So, that’s my family. Me, my mom, my dad, and some unorthodox ideas on what children should or shouldn’t know – at least according to middle-class, Midwestern standards. Early on, when I was five or so, my parents start describing me as oversexed because I flirted with the dock worker at the Soo Locks and played the part of a frightened weakling so that a troop of boy scouts would ferry me across a foot-wide stream on the beach. I don’t really know what oversexed is at that age, but my parents laugh when they say it, so I take it on as a part of me.
Like I mentioned, my parents believe in telling the truth, so when I come with more questions about sex, they give me more real answers. Sex, I’m told, is fun. It’s something people do because they love each other and want to make a baby, but it’s also something they do because it’s simply enjoyable. And while it’s an adult thing to do, there’s no notion that one needs a marriage certificate first. No, in fact, my mom says that a couple should have sex before marriage so they know if they’re compatible or not.
So when a serial rapist starts wandering around our part of town, I ask what that means. I’m told a rapist is a man who makes a woman have sex. But I’ve also been told that sex is fun. So, naturally I put the two together: A rapist is a man who makes women have fun. I ride my bicycle for hours around the neighborhood hoping he will find me, but he never does.
I’ve described my immediate family as small, but my extended family isn’t very extended, either. My mom is from Germany; all her family is still there and I rarely see them. My dad’s mother died when I was 5, and his dad never much cared for me. My dad’s sister, my aunt, lives two hours away with her husband and their only child. My uncle had two children from a previous marriage, but they’ve moved on and never come back.
They’re an odd bunch, but I love them. My aunt is an eccentric free spirit who follows her passions – whether that is playing drums, self-publishing health information or roller skating. My uncle is a professor at a state university who opens my eyes to concepts such as plate tectonics and psychiatry. Which is kind of fitting, because my cousin – a boy just two months older than me – is clearly disturbed before the age of 10. He’s threatened to kill his mother, has no friends and doesn’t relate well to other kids our age. Except for me.
But I love them all. I do. I only get to see them maybe twice a year, but I look forward to it. So when I’m 10 and my mom suggests maybe I could stay with my aunt and uncle a week over Christmas break, I’m thrilled.
I remember going there with my recorder and a book of music. I was into Simon and Garfunkel then, even though it’s 1980. I remember my aunt and I hearing “Abacab” on the radio. I remember us going out for Mexican hot chocolate, which came with a stick of cinnamon, and playing on her drum set.
I remember the afternoon I went to take a nap on her bed. My aunt and uncle’s bed….
But I only remember parts.
I do remember the curtains, a yellow brown, and the color of sunlight that filtered through them. I remember the “Scientific American” magazine on the nightstand and how I struggled to understand it. I remember stretching out on the big bed with the pillows and stretching out to sleep.
And then. And then…
My uncle. My cousin. An impromptu anatomy lesson.
“This is how girls are different from boys.”
Lying on my back. They stand at the foot of the bed. My dress up. My tights down.
And then. And then…
Tickling? I think so. Tickling, and the sensation of gasping for breath. Of not being able to get away.
And then it’s night – either that same night or the next one and my cousin is proclaiming that “Nothing could be finer than to be in her vaginer in the mo-o-or-ning,” to a line of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” And that line makes me panic, makes me want to make him shut up, because somehow I know it’s wrong.
That’s all I remember.
And at once, it’s enough and woefully incomplete.
Years later, when I turn 19, I tell my parents. They don’t believe me. They say I’m making it up. I shut up about it for nearly 20 years. But when my cousin turned 20 the next year and his dad kicked him out of the house, he comes to stay with us. He gives me a copy of “The Joy of Sex” for Christmas and tries to touch me every chance he gets. My parents notice.
My uncle died on Thanksgiving day five years ago. Good riddance. There’s not one good thing I have to say about him.
My cousin is a wreck, living in a halfway home, diagnosed with a smorgasbord of mental illness.
I wish I knew what really happened. I wish I knew where my uncle’s daughter disappeared to, and why she left. I wish I knew why my cousin is such a mess.
My parents believe me now.