The Pessimist’s Daughter

I live in a Southern Gothic novel. Somewhere in author heaven, Eudora Welty is smiling as she watches my life play out like a scene from one of her short stories. Every family gathering, whether it’s a baptism or Christmas, has an underlying tension. Even someone with no knowledge of my family history can hear the rattling of ammunition in the chamber of every loaded exchange.

Every family has a unique history of slights, both imagined and actual. Every time we get together is an addition to and a culmination of ours. We’re walking a tightrope that’s being stretched from both ends like taffy. No matter how much the tension stretches, we dare not speak of it aloud. Speaking of it would constitute acknowledgment, and acknowledgment is unacceptable. Acknowledgment would ruin the image we’ve created for ourselves of a loving, happy family. We will enjoy our Thanksgiving together, so long as no one points out the vitriol spilling out of every pore.

My grandparents’ house is the same as always. The window boxes are overflowing with fading summer flowers: pink peonies, yellow zinnias, and deep purple dahlias now just shadows of their former grandeur.

My mother briefs me on the rules for the day as we walk up the tree-lined path to the familiar powder blue front door with its shiny silver handle. The rules are the same as they’ve always been, but a refresher course surely can’t hurt.

I am not to allude to drinking, imply that I in any way am aware of the existence of alcohol, or (heaven forbid) drink even sparkling apple cider within ten square miles of my grandmother. There are similar rules for tattoos (like the one on my left shoulder), piercings (like the one in my nose), and mixed-metal jewelry (my grandmother thinks mixing gold and silver is a tacky tragedy). If I break any of these rules, our branch of the family tree will be shamed.

“I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s easier for everyone if you don’t rock the boat,” my mother tells me. She knows the consequences; she has been a part of this family a lot longer than I have. My mother’s caution has paid off over the years. So long as I don’t do anything horribly uncouth this year like put my elbows on the table or take the last dinner roll, we can still be the part of the family that made something of ourselves.

The front door creaks as we enter. The women are all wearing linen pantsuits with orthopedic shoes and printed cardigans while the men wear plaid button-up shirts tucked into jeans. A crowd of various aunts and uncles surround me to ask “how I’ve been” and “how my love life is going”. Whatever answers I give will be passed around every Methodist church in a fifty mile radius. Small-town rumor mills have to start somewhere.

My grandmother is talking about taking out the back wall of the kitchen, although she’s been talking about that for as long I can remember.

“I just think it would open up the space so much more,” she says for what could be the millionth time. “It just feels so closed off.”

Aunt June isn’t speaking to Uncle James. She hasn’t in a long time, not since James married that harlot Susanne. Susanne slept with June’s boyfriend back in high school and June has hated her ever since. My grandmother, ever vigilant, has seated the two of them as far apart as possible.

“My Susanne has come down with a terrible bug. Poor thing just can’t make it to Thanksgiving this year,” Uncle James tells us.

“That one’s been going around town,” my grandmother says.

“Oh, what a shame,” Aunt June says with no remorse whatsoever.

We join hands to say grace, my grandfather’s lazy drawl filling the spaces between us. The little cousins giggle when they open their eyes and see each other across the table also not following the prayer as they should be. My grandfather smiles indulgently, but Aunt Nancy shakes her head in disapproval at her nieces and nephews.

I couldn’t be happier when that last “amen” is spoken punctuated by gentle hand squeezes on both sides. Everyone holds forks at the ready; it’s time to eat. I take a moment to look out at the spread that my grandmother has slaved over all day, refusing help at every step. Creamy potato casserole, green beans with bacon, and perfectly golden dinner rolls are all laid out on my grandmother’s deep wood dining table. Not even the vegetables are vegetarian where I come from. Plates are passed around the table, everyone piling some of whichever dish is closest to them onto each until you’ve gotten your own back. Say what you will about Southerners, but you can’t say we aren’t polite.

“Marjorie, you’ll just have to give me the recipe for this,” great Aunt Carol says between bites of dressing.

“I’d be glad to,” my grandmother replies with a smile. Whether the smile is from pride or because she knows that great Aunt Carol can’t cook her way out of a paper bag is unclear.

As the meal winds down, we retreat into the den to sleepily watch the Cowboys and then the Longhorns lose yet again. If there’s one thing that we can agree on, it’s that the Cowboys are going to have to start running the ball if we’re going to get anywhere this season.

By the time family members begin to take their leave, at least four aunts are ready to scream after an entire day of insults hidden under four layers of indirect. They wouldn’t dare though, images must be maintained. Hugs are exchanged and lipstick marks from smacky kisses are left on every sleepy child’s cheek. Christmas is coming soon, but if we’re going to pretend to be happy like we did today, we’re going to need some time apart first.

Verdancy

You fell in love with green.

You found the green in yourself early on and embraced it, sought it out.

The deep green of the outer rings of your hazel eyes and

the indistinct green of the veins under the skin of your wrists and

the faded green of the old dishtowel your father used to wipe your face clean of the blood dripping from your nose onto the kitchen stool.

You always looked good in green.

Not the ephemeral green of storefront neon and Christmas string lights

Your green was sturdier, mature.

Yours was the green of the forest.

Your green was built to last.

Until it didn’t.

Did anyone hear you as you fell?

Did you bother to let anyone know?

Did anyone mourn your loss?

You did.

You watched as the green you once embraced became a stranger to you.

Fading into yellow and brown.

It’s a shame;

You look terrible in yellow.

I Am Not Here

I am not here

This is not happening again



You are not him

You know that I know this

but you can’t fully mask the hurt

that comes when I see you as him

even for just a moment.



I’m sorry

that I flinch every time you raise a hand near me

I’m sorry

I had to leave that restaurant that you like so much

because of the particular way the man at the table next to us had his hair styled

I’m sorry 

you fell in love with someone so needy and fragile



You tell me every night that you love me

holding me close

kissing the back of my neck with your winter-chapped lips

You love me and I love you

but I’m still learning to love myself.



You tell me that I’m the strongest person you’ve met

I have trouble seeing it most days

I try to see the me that you see

I want to be her

a shining example of courage born of adversity.



I’m scared every day of my life

I’m scared that my entire life is going to be like this

reacting like a cornered animal

every time I hear a loud noise

I’m scared that I’ll never be the person you deserve to be with

But I’m even more scared

that you’ll be here anyway

wasting your time

Poem of Myself

Do you believe in the power

of self-love?




Your body belongs to you

and no one else.




If you don't want to kiss him,

for chrissake DON'T




You are the owner of your

lips tongue and teeth




When you learn to love everything

cellulite pig-nose and weird second toes




In that moment it will feel as if

no power can stop you




Fall in love with yourself

Be your own secret admirer




Write love notes about your

hair eyes and tits




Buy yourself flowers and champagne

Treat yourself to nice dinners




After all

The most beautiful parts of you

are the ones you love the best

Pretty Girls

Supposedly, the first step to finding love is learning to love oneself. The way well-meaning hot girls say it makes it sound so easy. But loving yourself isn’t simple by any means.

I try to look only at the good in my face. Looking in the mirror, I force myself to fixate on the brightness of my eyes and the thick softness of my hair. I keep my attention away from the overfull cheeks and the missing cheekbones.

Once in junior high, my school introduced an anti-bullying campaign. Part of the effort to was a self-esteem exercise. In our class of twenty, every student received a sheet of paper at the end with a compliment from each of the other students written on it. Sarah and Rachel and the other girls who weren’t me had cute notes with hearts drawn around them about their hair and eyes and how pretty they were. My notes were more along the lines of how funny and how smart I was.

“Why aren’t I pretty?” I cried to my father that night, clutching a crumpled tear-stained pink piece construction paper with “What We Like About Maggie Is…” written in block letters at the top.

“You’re better than just pretty,” my father reassured me. “You’re smart and kind and funny and that will take you a hell of a lot further than pretty in life.”

Now I’m in college. Smart definitely did take me far, but sometimes I still wish I could have been pretty. I have learned to draw on cheekbones, so it’s not all bad.

Episodes

(1)

I saw this commercial the other day for one medication or another that warned me to tell my doctor if I experienced “new or worsening depression”. New depression? There are people who haven’t been depressed since early childhood? I’m having trouble picturing it.

(2)

“Your pulse is a little high; are you nervous?” Dr. Warner asked me the other day.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied.

“Why is that?” Dr. Warner asked.

“I’m awake?” I told him, laughing. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did.

(3)

I think that I’m probably at least mildly manic-depressive. I’ve got these wildly cresting  and falling emotional extremes that are seemingly predicated on nothing concrete. That sounds like the textbook DSM-whatever-we’re-at definition of bipolar depression, but it also kind of sounds like standard human experience. I’m not sure if I’ve experienced either of them, so who knows.

(4)

My mental health team is comprised of myself, a clinical psychiatrist, and a therapist. I’ve got this fantasy where they sit in a room together and talk about nothing but me. Trouble is, my therapist is a behaviorist, so I don’t think they’d get along too well. I can’t tell if them getting into an argument over how to make my life better makes the fantasy better or worse.

(5)

I forgot to refill my medication again. I’m in for a fantastic day of sweating, nausea, and mild dissociative episodes. They call it SSRI discontinuation syndrome, because no one wants to say ‘withdrawal’. Withdrawal is a word I’ve really only heard on Law and Order reruns when someone dies before they can testify. To draw a connection between me and that isn’t funny, but it definitely makes me laugh.

(6)

Sometimes I wonder if I’m emotionally stunted. Objectively emotional things like ‘heartwarming’ Facebook videos of football teams doing nice things for people don’t affect me much anymore. But then I get sad again. Am I so self-involved that I can’t get out of my own head long enough to have a little empathy? Am I so self-involved that I’ve devoted this much thought to this?

Summer Heat

My Papa speaks like a porch rocker in a steamy summer. There’s a slow cadence, rocking back and forth lazily as his words bleed together like sweat drops combining to roll down my face. There’s nothing hard about the way he speaks, all soft consonants and gentle melody. Every word is a song, every sentence a symphony. When he speaks, you can’t help but hear the smile as a matching one forms on your face.

They don’t speak the way my Papa does here. Everything here is sharp staccato, like the click of heels on concrete. They speak like birds with clipped wings. Sentences are utilitarian, to the point and often no further. There are no roundabout stories that take detours into dusty corners of town gossip or funny little expressions here.

When I speak like my Papa, people can’t help but listen. My lilting drawl feels like buttery sunlight filtering through live oak leaves, suffusing the coldest corners of a gray place like this.