love, Ruth Nineke

The Work Chooses Us

Post Published: January 2, 2024
From #MOODS, Men, And Mommy Issues

I suppose I could have been bad from jump. If you believe in things like curses or hexes, or karmically-polluted bloodlines, it probably wouldn’t be hard to string together a narrative whereby I inherited my mother and grandmother’s emotional trauma, some of my maternal grandfather’s evil, and my father’s as well. I mean I am West Indian so all manner of dark and mystical predetermination is possible.

Who knows for sure where the magic begins and ends in children born in the bush?

I remember times when it seemed almost like my Aunt was trying to exorcise an evil from me.

I don’t believe I’m inherently evil. I’ve never believed that. But sure, I believe there’s a monster inside all of us. And that’s part of the journey isn’t it? Our work — if we identify it, if we choose to do it — is starving the monster, feeding the monster, training the monster, integrating the monster, transforming the demon into something which is no longer terrifying once it is seen and fully known.

Or the work chooses us. Whichever.

The summer of 1991 may well be my favorite summer ever. Nothing compared. We went to the mall in Chevy Chase, the one with the glass elevators, and we ate soft baked chocolate chip cookies. My brother taught me how to chop and stir my ice cream to make it the perfect texture, like gelato. We rode bikes at my Grandad’s in Silver Springs. We got really neat coloring books, and we played the game of Life for the first time.

Even though I’m sure he probably gave me a hard time — because he has always given me a hard time — my brother was my very best friend that summer, and never again.

We moved that fall, into my second favorite apartment, at 197 East 51st street.

We lived within walking distance of two aunts, Bobby’s department store — which I believe still stands on Utica Avenue — and of Kings County Hospital — which was convenient, as I wound up spending quite a bit of time.

What also happened that fall was the beginning of the war which consumed my mother for the next twelve or thirteen years. It literally never fucking ended with her.

My father had come from Guyana to live in New York. He was living in Brooklyn, close to his mother, and her sister Doreen — with whom we’d had a fair relationship. Aunty Doreen liked us, and we liked her. I wouldn’t say I ever felt close to her, but she was nice, and she enjoyed being part of our lives.

With my father in Brooklyn, my mother’s top priority was gutting him for child support money.

I’m starting the second grade. My brother is starting 5th and I distinctly recall asking him one night before bed, why we have to do whatever teachers say.

I think he answered something simple like “Because they’re in charge.”

We all come out differently, don’t we?

Anyway, shortly after that night — very likely the next day — I’m full on acting out in school. This is a dramatic 180 from the quiet, cute, respectful, good student who had done her first two years of schooling there. No one knew what to make of it. There were notes home. I forged my mother’s signature for the first time in second grade. I used to get out of my seat and stomp around the classroom like a maniac, and honestly, probably for no reason other than defiance. I was the resistance!

But also, very likely, I was emotionally agitated by mother, by the absence of my sister — who’d been sent away, after years of getting into fights at school, to live with our grandmother in Canada — by feeling insignificant and not knowing what I was feeling, much less how to voice it. Truly, I cannot fully remember many feelings from that time.

Once I started acting up, my bad behavior gave license to the other little monsters in my class to unleash their inner beasts.

It was almost like a competition of who could be the baddest. I hope now, teachers know to look for signs like this domino effect behavior, and realize they must consider that maybe someone or other is getting fucked up at home.

I don’t know why I turned on poor Miss Rosemary Trank. She was a lovely short haired, rosy skinned Catholic girl from Queens. She had the most darling handwriting, and she wore white tights — God, the early 90s — and light floral patterns, and white shirts, and she definitely referred to her dress shoes as pumps. I found out later that I’d made her cry on occasion — never in class, never in front of us. I’m not proud of doing that. I liked her.

She was one of the first teachers to encourage me to write. I loved to read and write, and she pushed me to fill up legal pads and notebooks with whatever I wanted. We once went on a class trip to the library, which happened to be the one by my house, and I remember putting on with librarian to look for me in the computer because I was a writer. I was being a show-off, and a ham, but Miss Trank let me have my moment.

She also taught us the United States song which I sang endlessly at home, until even my brother and sister knew the words.

So Miss Trank has figured out I like writing, and she has employed journals as a means for us to mellow the fuck out and have quiet time in the mornings.

I still remember the day I drew the picture of me tying a sweater around my neck, but I don’t remember what provoked it. I just remember looking nice that day and that I’d especially liked how my mother combed my hair, in a ponytail; because that’s how I drew myself. I remember drawing the picture. I remember writing that sometimes I just wanted to kill myself. I don’t remember believing that, or being completely attached to the notion.

I just know that sometimes I was angry, and I was very aware that I had no control over certain things. I knew that my mother could and would beat me whenever she felt like. I knew that there was no prediction or warning for when she would turn. I knew that she would apologize and hug and kiss us after and say she didn’t mean to hurt us and tell us that she loved us. I knew that this was my life, and I knew that I hated it.

Boy oh boy.

I don’t know why I put it down in the journal, except that I must have assumed some level of safety, and secrecy. I didn’t expect it to blow up the way it did, but social services got involved. Some people came to the apartment to see our conditions. My mom called everyone in her family. My Aunts tried to encourage me not to be sad or depressed. I was aware that I was not supposed to let anyone take me away. But wasn’t that what I wanted? Isn’t that why I did it?

I didn’t want the police and social workers in our kitchen. They cut an intimidating and unsettling image, the large figures in their dark uniforms, in strong contrast, and out of place against our white walls. I didn’t want that entire Saturday I spent with my mother at Kings County Hospital for my psych-eval. I didn’t want to answer all the questions, or eat that bland AF hospital lunch.

And I most certainly did not want my weekly sessions with Dr. Pollack. I don’t know what those sessions accomplished but I was pretty quickly bored with them. I used to see her after school once a week, and during school I had to see Mr. Jim, the school’s guidance counselor — who I remember now as looking something like Chris Cuomo in a bright red polo and navy Dockers shorts. I don’t know if that’s what he looked like at all, but that’s how he’s coming up in my memory.

I often looked back at my counseling and kicked myself for not giving up my mother. I should have screamed to anyone who would hear me what was going on. I should have told them how she once stripped my brother, sister, and I naked and beat us all at the same time, and pushed my face into a mirror and told me to say that I was ugly. Because she did that. I was five or six when that happened, and if my brother or sister denies it they’re either lying or have blocked the trauma from their memories.

I should have given my mother up when I had the chance, but I didn’t. I’d been informed by my Aunts that I wasn’t supposed to trust the social workers, or anyone; that if I told them anything they would take me away from home, and split up my brother and I. As the ultimate coercion into silence, I was assured that if that happened I would never see my favorite Aunt in DC again.

As an adult, now I can respect that my mother’s cousins were trying to downplay and minimize the entire situation, perhaps, as a means to comfort her. She must have been terrified she was going to lose her children. America was not like Guyana, they’d take your kids away here. I honestly believe my mother’s cousins were scared for her and no mother would ever wish that potential loss on any other mother.

But these cousins were also wrong in choosing to protect my abuser. These cousins have always maintained that my mother had it much worse, that my Grandfather gave the real beatings. The comparisons, I imagine were meant to make me feel fortunate somehow — spared — and also to make me pity and feel compassion for my mother.

This was manipulation.

These Aunts of mine, my mother’s cousins, were tricking me into enduring a childhood of pain so that my mother wouldn’t suffer a loss. I don’t fault them for their family loyalty. I don’t think I have any anger toward them. What’s done is done. But there is no way that these women — so keen on identifying my mother as a victim of abuse — didn’t have an idea the kind of treatment my sister, brother, and I were getting. They knew my mother was taking out her trauma on me and they compelled me to keep taking it. They enabled her.

All I knew, at the time of my counseling, was that I must not talk about getting beat, and I must not get my mother in trouble, and I must not break up my family. This was on me. I brought this obstacle into our lives and I had to make it go away. I can piece together now, as my mother’s number one priority was revenge against my father, that the entire plot would have crumbled if she no longer had his children as collateral.

I should have spoken up. But I didn’t know that then.

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