not in control
A memory of myself as a little girl arrived to my brain the other day.
I’m five, I think. We’re sitting at the kitchen table at our old house in Oak Street—my mom, my little sister Dani, and me. It’s the round, light wood table that eventually moved to giant basement of our second house and then to the shitty kitchen of my first apartment. It’s dinnertime, I assume, because this story involves vegetables, and I can’t remember ever eating vegetables for breakfast. These were the diced mixed vegetables that came frozen in a bag from Shop Rite: little round peas, little square carrots, little stubs of string beans. I remember thinking they were very cute, even then.
My little sister did not. She did not want to eat the vegetables. I think she maybe never wanted to eat the vegetables, which is what prompted my mom’s extreme frustration on this particular occasion. If she’d sometimes eaten the vegetables, sometimes not, I feel like Mom would have let it go. But instead she threatened the thing that got Gorilla Glued to my brain like weird things from childhood do—the theme song to Zoobilee Zoo, the first time I saw someone with Down’s Syndrome, the way my Nanny smelled (like pee).
What is rickets? Do you know? Does anyone know? Did a Council of Parents of Kids Who Hate Vegetables come together for a meeting at the Knights of Columbus in the late ‘80s and, after some debate, land on… Rickets! Yes! That’s it! Bravo team! Veeerryy scary. Wine coolers for everyone!
I did not know of rickets then, and I do not know of rickets now. But I had to make sure Dani didn’t get them, fast. These rickets seemed life-threatening based on the tone of Mom’s voice, and if Dani died, I would have no one to send into the bathroom first to check behind the shower curtain for monsters. Dani did not share my concern. If I was five then she was two, maybe three? I can’t remember what she said in response to the rickets gauntlet throw but I remember the look on her face: bring it, lady. And so my mom did.
Fine. If you’re not going to eat your vegetables then you can leave the table.
In the words my Mommom accidentally taught me: JESUS MARY AND JOSEPH!
First rickets and now an invitation to leave the table, the place where we talk about our highs and lows from the day!? The place where you sing songs about the season and make plans for an outing with Mommom and Poppop to the dollhouse store in Spring Lake. The place where you’re allowed to play with a fruit roll up – unroll, stick to table, pick apart, repeat?! First, a probably brutal death by however you die from rickets and now banishment from heaven?!?! Clearly my sister was deranged. Clearly she needed to be saved from her poor, young, dumb-dumb self. Obviously I would save her.
Why do you want her to eat the vegetables so badly? Is it because of the rickets or is because she’s making things uncomfortable and messy and out of control?
We were talking about how lost, sad, and unstable I’ve felt since the election—my therapist and me. Somehow, we got to my relationship with control (somehow we always do, though I never see it coming soon enough to avoid it, which is how I know I have a good therapist).
I can’t remember how we got to the rickets story, but I’m not surprised. It’s one of those memories that looms, gliding by ghost-like when you least and most expect it. It’s also one of the two tantrums I remember having, ever. I’m sure I had some, if not many, but I can only remember two. The first, I had after being rude to my Mommom. I think I was supposed to apologize for something but I wouldn’t? The next thing I remember I was flailing on the floor of my bedroom, gasp-cough-crying that something wasn’t fair. The second: Ricketsgate.
Back to the round wooden table where Mom threatened banishment, and Dani, all piss and vinegar and dimples, calls her bluff. She scooted off to the playroom. For some reason I envision her wearing a blue, short-sleeved silk nightgown with lace trim, but that’s what I picture her in for 99 percent of our childhood, so take that for what it’s worth. I sat there for a beat or two trying to get to the bottom of the situation, I think. Can I get a little more intel on this rickets situation? How bad was it, really? Bad enough for me to hurl myself into one of the two tantrums in my life I’ll ever remember? Yes? OK then, OFF TO THE PLAYROOM.
YOU HAVE TO EAT THE VEGETABLES!!! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAAAAND. YOU CAN DIIIEEE. YOU’RE GOING TO DIIEEE!!! PLLEEAAAASSEEE. PLEEASSSEEE JUST EAT THEM. MOMMY NEEDS YOU TO EAT THEM. WHY WON’T YOU JUST LIIIISTEN!!?? CAN’T YOU SEE YOU’RE MAKING HER SO MAD. JUST STOP. JUST DO IT. JUST PPLLEEASSSSEEE MAKE IT ALL BETTER!!!
I splayed out on the tan Berber carpet of the playroom floor, kicking and screaming. Dani played with her dolls. She was, I now realize, the original nasty woman.
It’s hard to stay focused during a tantrum, at least in my experience, which is admittedly limited. Also, who knows if this is how it really went down? This happened 30-plus years ago. Maybe we were both crying? Maybe we both got sent to the playroom? Maybe there weren’t string beans in the mix. Maybe it was cauliflower.
Doesn’t matter. Every time I remember the memory it feels the same in my stomach and the feeling says disorder = BAD, order = GOOD. Make it stop, make it better, FIX IT.
Do you really think you could have made your sister eat the vegetables? Do you really think you could have prevented your mom from being frustrated that she wasn’t eating them? Do you really think you could have fixed it?
Me? No. I couldn’t. I didn’t. But a better little girl could have—a perfect little girl.
I’ve remembered this memory a thousand times in my life. I’ve never seen that part.
Since somewhere around 2:30 A.M. on November 9th I’ve felt lost, sad, and unstable, but until today I didn’t realize that what I feel most deeply is out of control. The world I thought I knew is in a state of disorder.
America is going to get rickets and I can’t make them eat their vegetables. I am not good enough. End of game. Bad guys win.
I’m not great about acknowledging how things affect my psyche. I prefer to believe it’s like an iron clad stomach made of brain: No matter what goes in, I can take it. But I cannot deny that these times – the election, this outcome, the weeks of turmoil that have followed – has taken a toll. I am more upset than makes sense to me. I feel more hopeless than is natural to me. I frequently feel on the verge of a tantrum. Something very core to me has been triggered.
Since November 9th, all these feelings have made me feel weak. I think that’s why the Ghost of Rickets Tantrum Past flew by. I think it was trying to say this is big and deep; give yourself a fucking break.
I’m going to try to do that for the rest of this year. I’m going to focus on the fact that I am not all-powerful over presidents or 2 year-olds (or presidents that are 2 year-olds…). But I am all powerful over myself. And maybe if I go a little easier on her she’ll have the time and space and energy and spirit to affect some change.