Gandhi’s Family Portrait.
By Mk Michaels
I was the eldest child of a narcissistic and competitive mother, and afforded all rights and privileges inherent in the title.
In reality, I was my mother’s unwilling sparring partner, her litmus test, and the measure by which she perceived that all others judged her success… or failure.
I have been told that I was a little adult, perfectly behaved, well-mannered and mature far beyond my years. In stories I’ve heard of my childhood, this is illustrated time and time again. I was the good child. I was the daughter that my parents could rely on to do the right thing.
I was the one who took on the mantle of caring for and protecting my sister two and a half years my junior.
Years ago, I read in my baby book the chores I had at Age Two:
1. Set the table
2. Clean the crumbs under the table after dinner
3. Unload the silverware from the dishwasher
4. Separate the laundry
5. Fold the laundry
On one hand, this could be a charming list of chores that a two-year-old was, in fact, assisting with alongside a patient parent who held ultimate responsibility for completion of the task.
Knowing my mother and how she interacted with me, however, I am certain that I held ultimate responsibility and was chastised were I not to complete the task… flawlessly.
In contrast to the idyllic Wonderbread and Twinkie lunches life of so many of my peers, mine was typified by significant responsibility on one far too young to shoulder such accountability. Couple that with a sense that I was never quite enough to please my mother — and, quite frankly, the world at large — and the seed of discontent was planted.
“My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.” ~ Coco Chanel
I look at the few pictures I have of my childhood and, it is clear, I was not generally a happy child. Pictures taken with my mother show her monitoring my performance for the camera — am I smiling well enough? Am I being a good reflection on her?
My favorite picture of me as a child, however, is one in which I was two, maybe three years old. I am dressed in my marigold-flowered Sunday dress, pristine white tights and an expression on my face that can only be described as a passively resistant pout.
As usual, my mother is in the picture looking the part of a resplendently perfect mother, and I, in a display of immaturity equal to my years, am refusing to participate in the exercise of perfection for the camera.
While I do not know this as fact, I like to think of it as me resisting in the only way I knew how at the time. I was Gandhi, leading the Indians in disobedience against the salt tax. I was Martin Luther King, marching against segregation.
I was a three-year-old, pushed to the edge by one too many picture perfect poses, poking out her lower lip and refusing to be pretty for the benefit of yet another photograph.
It was the early start of my slow and tidal rebellion against the constraints of being my mother’s daughter.
In the many years that followed, a variety of tools including therapy, meditation, writing, prayers, and retreats allowed me to break away from a relatively toxic upbringing and find a softer way to go through life as well as connect with my authentic self.
Today, on the cusp of 50 years old, I have never been more happy with who I am. In coming through the years past, I have reached a place of peace and, more importantly, true gratitude for the lessons learned in the course of my childhood. Gandhi would be pleased, I believe.
“I blame my mother for nothing, but forgive her for everything.” ~ Mary J Blige
Mk Michaels is an obnoxiously optimistic dreamer who can find the silver lining in a stinking pit of despair. She has been writing poetry and prose for as long as she can remember, and is particularly fond of an intensely deep poem she composed about the color red in a second grade writing assignment: “Red is a color that never gets duller than bricks. Red is a color that really ticks…” Her writing topics have expanded since then to include love, life, children, anger, ghosts of relationships past, and blue. You can connect with her through her blog, Facebook or email.