I was at Christmas dinner with my family, and we were talking about how my parents think my older brother claims to be a half inch shorter than our father out of respect, as they appear to be the same height. “I raised my kids to be respectful,” my dad said. For just a moment, Tiny Me brightened with the possibility that a rare and secretly longed for compliment could be coming our way. Then, nodding to me he said to his brother, “so I’m pretty sure that one is yours.”
We were, in fact, raised to be respectful. It was probably the number one thing our parents taught us. A blind respect, for anyone older than or related to us. A respect that overrode our own feelings and needs. Is the crazy aunt calling you ugly again? Well just deal with it, she’s your elder and deserves your respect. Did that old man you’ve never met demand a hug? Better give him one (and stop that crying in the meantime!) because he’s lived longer than you have. Is everyone in the family not-so-subtly calling you a slut because you’ve been divorced and have the audacity to bring a date to a family function in the hopes of not dying alone? You probably are one, and it’s their right as esteemed family members of the older generation to tell you so. Appreciate it.
My dad isn’t completely wrong, though. Not about me really being my uncle’s (though insinuating that your wife slept with your brother when he was 16, in front of her, is another sweet holiday gem for another time.) but about me being disrespectful to him. I am. I roll my eyes at his stories. I call him an idiot. I don’t make my son hug him. I even do the unthinkable and stand up for my kid when my dad makes fun of him. That’s like two of us disrespecting him at once. I’m surprised we haven’t been banished.
I just got real tired of him molesting me, really. When I was young and he used his power over me to sneak his hand into my nightgown, or to make comments on my lack of noticeable breasts while trying to open my shirt, I stayed quiet. I had to. I was terrified. But then, little by little, I started fighting back. It didn’t work right away, but at least I had a voice. A scared, tiny voice that people still ignored, but it was there. Over the years, it got louder. One day, I even called him a piece of fucking shit. To his face. Because, lets be honest, that’s what child molesters are. He tackled and beat me, but it was worth it.
I don’t talk about my dad in a lot of detail, out of respect for someone that doesn’t actually exist. I don’t have a dad that loves me, and I don’t see that I ever will. But just in case he should appear, I’d like him to see that I’ve done my best to spare his feelings. Ever trying to be the good daughter, still convinced deep down that it was my fault, because I’m too sassy and weird.
I don’t talk about it with my mom much, out of respect for her. She chose him, over and over, and what’s the point of making her feel bad about it? Will my childhood change? Nope. Will my siblings come back for holidays so its not just me, trying for an unknown reason to repair a family that won’t even admit it’s broken? Probably not. Best to just leave it in the past, right?
I don’t tell many people in my family about this, out of respect for an image they hold onto. He’s their brother that fixes the roof. He’s their uncle that tells weird jokes and farts a lot. Even if I thought they’d believe me, why ruin this man they think he is over something that happened decades ago?
But then. I remember her. This tiny girl, who loved to dance. She wanted to be a ballerina. She lived to feel the music in her tiny body, twirling and leaping until she was out of breath. She thought the world was magic, and that she could be part of its beauty. Until they told her she was wrong. She had to do what they wanted, how and when they wanted it. That what she felt didn’t matter, it was only their convenience that did. So she stopped. Now I do things out of respect for her. She’s not older, she’s not an esteemed member of society, but she’s important.
For most of my life, I’ve tried to avoid confrontation and the mere possibility of hurt feelings by going along with whatever everyone else wanted. I don’t pick places to eat, movies to see, or adventures to go on, because someone might disagree, and it would be uncomfortable. When you’re constantly afraid of being disrespectful, everything becomes that way, even when it’s not. Having an opinion isn’t rude. Wanting Taco Bell isn’t a slight against someone else’s character. (An affront to your taste buds, perhaps, but not actually a personal insult.)
Tomorrow is my birthday. It’s the one day a year I make all my own decisions, without a thought to anyone else’s feelings. I eat where I want, dress ridiculously, laugh loudly, hug strangers, and do whatever I think of in that moment that makes me happy. It’s one of my favorite days of the year.
I’ve been striving to live like every day is my birthday. Maybe not complete with dress-up karaoke every night, but more the idea that I am important enough to weigh in on discussions the other 364 days a year. Everyone deserves that respect.