The Oldest Cousin

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When people find out that I’m an only child, they’ll often make some kind of comment about how lucky I was to not have to share my belongings, or to have my parents “all to myself.” Logically, I can see how this might look like it’s the case, but it’s not exactly true. I grew up in a house in the middle of the woods, about a mile outside of town. Most of the time, there were no other kids around to play with. My parents didn’t have a lot of friends, so we didn’t have company often. My mom was/is a stay-at-home mom, so I had her, but my dad was always working, often not making it home until after I’d already gone to bed in the evening. I was lonely. I was also introverted, which back then just came across as shy and weird, so I didn’t make friends easily. Mostly, I just sat in my hammock out in the yard and read a lot.

My father is the oldest of three boys, and though both of my uncles also had children, their oldest kids are seven years younger than I am. Now that I’m in my 30’s, having cousins in their mid-20’s doesn’t seem like such a huge age gap. When you’re 15 and your closest relation is 8, it’s a little difficult to relate. Also, my mother’s only sibling, a sister, decided not to have children, so I’m the only kid on that side. Summer vacations at my maternal grandmother’s house felt lonely because I was drastically younger than everyone else, while trips to my paternal grandmother’s house felt lonely because I was drastically older than everyone else. On top of all that, from kindergarten through sixth grade I was sent to a private Christian school, and I was the poorest kid in class. My bookish behavior, worn-out Kmart clothes, and complete lack of understanding of pop culture did not earn me friends, let’s just put it that way.

So childhood was uncomfortable. As I got older, I started to focus more and more on just getting the hell out of dodge, and starting over again. The focus for my family was always that I get a great education, so I excelled in high school and applied to good colleges. I was excited to get into Tulane for undergrad, and once I moved away things got a lot better. Though I didn’t become a new person, I did find different ways to express myself. I pushed myself to be more outgoing. I found friends, and eventually those friendships built a family structure. Now, my friend family feels more real to me than my actual family.

It doesn’t help my relationships with folks back home that as I grew and explored, my life experiences began to shape my understanding of the world. My life in a small town in the country paled in comparison to my new experiences in New Orleans, Chicago, and across the world as I traveled and met people from all walks of life. My education level began to set me apart from my family, as well. I have a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, while most of my family members went to work right after high school, or else got bachelor’s degrees from smaller local colleges and then jumped into the workforce. It doesn’t matter much to me, but at home, people tend to mention my school career to me in a condescending way pretty often, like getting an education is a negative trait. I’ve given up trying to figure out what that means.

Also, I found that as I got more and more into modern tech and gadgetry, both for work and for kicks, I started finding that I had even less to talk to my mother and father about. Eventually, there couldn’t help but be this huge divide between us. All of the things that I take for granted about the way the world works are just not part of the world that they see every day. Their views are also often shuttered and prejudiced, so I find myself having to ignore a lot of things, while picking and choosing what “battles” to undertake, what ideas to gently attempt to instill to try to negate the prejudice (and sometimes, complete ignorance). It’s not easy. It’s not fun. I hate it. Luckily, both of my parents love me very much, and try their hardest to relate to me. It’s obvious when we’re talking to each other that we’re all doing our best to figure out how to talk to each other and keep the bond strong; it’s just nothing like what I know/see/experience happening with my friends and their families, so sometimes it gets me down.

The one bright spot in my family is my cousin Crystal, who’s my oldest female cousin. She’s almost eight years younger than me, but we’ve always been close-ish. When she was a tiny, chubby thing with a huge smile, she’d always follow me around everywhere, and as she got older we bonded over being the outsiders in the family. We’re the only members of the family to move away from North Carolina, and with me being pagan and her being an atheist, we’re both damned for all eternity as far as our family is concerned. So there’s that to bond over, lol! Plus, we’re both pretty geeky, which doesn’t hurt. But there’s still enough of a gap in our ages that we aren’t buddy-buddy or anything. It’s just nice to know I have one family member that gets me, and I think she feels the same way. We talk on Facebook every couple of weeks, so that’s nice.

Either way, here I am – the black sheep of the family, even though I’ve done everything “right”. An adult who hasn’t seen her parents in three years, and tries never to go home to North Carolina if she can avoid it. Someone who wants desperately to connect with her family, but mostly feels like she has nothing at all in common with them. Someone who convinces herself that feeling like an outsider is just in her imagination, only to have it proven over and over again that she has never fit in, and never will. If I felt like I didn’t belong there as a child, it’s definite that I actually don’t belong there now, as a grown woman. I don’t feel like I have an extended family, most of the time. I love my parents, but I’m often exasperated with them, and they with me. All I want is a big family that laughs together and could be counted on in a pinch. It makes me sad that I might never have that. But I guess that’s just what happens to some of us.

It’s Not At All What You’d Hoped

Anna at 23. A selfie taken back with the hashtag was just a pound sign. Vienna, November 2004.

Anna at 23. A selfie taken back when the hashtag was just a pound sign. I’m wearing my favorite hat (lost during Katrina), and my favorite earrings. If you’ve seen my tattoo before, you might recognize the design. Vienna, November 2004.

Hello me. We probably shouldn’t be meeting like this, if certain 1980’s time travel movies are to be believed. Given that I’ll always take Spock’s explanations over Doc Brown’s, though, I guess we’ll be fine. Of course, you’ll have no clue what I’m talking about. It will be another five years before the new movie comes out, and at the moment (provided I remember you correctly) you’re still trying to pretend that you aren’t as excited about Federation matters as you obviously are. Yeah, you still admit your love of Star Wars if asked, since no one seems to look down on it as much as they do Star Trek, but seriously lady, come out of the geek closet already. It’s going to be OK. No one is going to shun you for getting a little googly-eyed over the cool costumes and the concept of an entire planet full of people working towards peace. No one that matters, anyway.

I’d offer you some coffee, but you don’t like it. Oh, you will, though. But listen up – don’t go down that dark path towards over-caffeination. It’s pretty much the devil. I’m just now weaning myself off of the stuff after a good five-year dependency. It’s really not worth the effort. Plus, there are even some studies now that say too much coffee can make you gain weight – and yeah, you notice than I’m about forty pounds heavier than you are at 23. So maybe just don’t get into a steady relationship with the java anytime soon, OK? And stop with the diet pills. Just stop.

So about this summer. The decision you made was a tough one, and yeah, you’re going to be replaying it for the rest of your life. It’s always going to be about the math, really. You’ll think “what if” forever. Every year you’ll invent a new scenario to adjust for the time that’s passed. But it’s OK. You had it easier than a lot of people, and I know that you are about 95% fine with how everything went down. Believe me when I say that you’ll continue to be OK with it. From where I’m sitting, 10 years later, I’m nearing the 100% point. There are some very tiny regrets, but not about the way it happened. It was the right choice.

You know why? Because that trip you’re currently on in Vienna, to visit Katie and celebrate your birthday – that’s going to be one of the happiest memories of your life. At your darkest points, you’ll remember the Riesenrad, and missing that stupid flight to Berlin. You’ll be simultaneously horrified and highly amused that you hallucinated Snow White’s evil stepmother. And you’ll be grateful for every second spent in the presence of your beloved friend. Even more important, you’ll come to realize that the moment you decided to book that trip was the moment you chose to pick yourself up and put yourself back together, and to live every single day to the fullest. And the effects of that decision have continued to ripple through your life, making you such a full and interesting person. No, you’ll still never be able to admit that to yourself without feeling guilty and stupid, but as Jean LeLoup says, “…et j’ai des grands instants de lucididité”.

You’re so resilient, Anna. I know it feels right now like he just spent the last year and a half slowly tearing your heart out, and that this summer was the culmination of some horror show that you, the master masochist, willingly signed up for. I know you’re blaming yourself. But believe me – in 10 years time, you will have traveled the world. You will be getting ready for the biggest adventure of your life, finally, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. And he’ll be balding, and spouting worn out platitudes via social media (don’t worry, you’ll find out more about that later), and generally annoying you every time he happens to cross your mind. The love stays. But reality breaks in, and it brings a hell of a lot of peace with it.

I suppose I should give you some hints about what’s coming up for you. This next year is going to be great, until it isn’t. You’re going to have a lot of fun hanging out with your new friends, and working at K-Paul’s. And you’re going to get into grad school, and go back to Vienna and Paris and London again this summer. It’s going to be an amazing dream of a year, the best you’ve ever had, and the best you’ll have for some time to come. Once you come home, though, there’s going to be a hurricane. You’ll lose everything you own, be disowned by your family, and will have to move across the country to start over again from scratch. But you’ll meet a ton of new friends, and that new strength, the strength that you found on your trip to Vienna, that’s going to get you through it all. You will rise to the occasion, and it will mold you into something different. The phoenix. Me.

I wish I could tell you now that you shouldn’t go back to New Orleans when your heart starts yearning for home that winter, but then you wouldn’t meet your next serious boyfriend. And you’ll want to meet him. It will be an interesting time. He’ll teach you a lot about yourself. But he’ll make you forget a lot about yourself, too. Make your decisions carefully, my love. I wish I could give you some guidance, but you already know that your major problem is always going to be your self esteem, paired with a near pathological need to be of service to those you love. The challenge is going to be figuring out when to jump ship. If I were you, I’d talk to that guy at the end of the bar on our 30th birthday. Yeah, I know that’s seven years from now in your world, but keep it in mind. You’ll know who I’m talking about when you get there.

Oh 23-year old Anna, I love you. More importantly, other people do, too. I wish that 33-year old Anna could keep that in focus more often. Am I rambling? Is anything I’m saying even making sense to you? I guess more than anything, all I want to say is to pay attention, enjoy the little things, stop placing so much weight on other people’s needs, and place a little more on your own. Just follow your intuition. Take the lesson you learned from that one leap of faith and multiply it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how things turn out – how YOU turn out. It’s not at all what you’d hoped.

It’s much better.