Briana Steel – “That’s the Human in Me”

Growing up, I believed I had a normal family. My dad owned a business in Old Town

Tacoma, my mom was a psychologist who “retired” when she was pregnant with me. She stayed at home and cared for us kids; packed our lunches everyday, and made banana chocolate smoothies for us when we came home from school. My parents loved and supported my brother and me and always did what was best for us. We were close with our extended family, almost all my relatives lived in state — excluding a few of my dad’s cousins who had moved to Alaska, Oregon and Minnesota. We would rotate thanksgivings, and see both sides of the family on Christmas day every year. We would also see them often throughout the year, for holidays, birthdays or just for fun.

My dad had a normal family; everyone was happily married with a few kids, and a stable job. My mom’s family was a little complicated; my grandma divorced and married several times (there were a few other things going on) and it created a lot of half-brothers, sisters and cousins. It was normal to me because I grew up in this situation and it didn’t show any signs of being out of the ordinary, at least to me.

Every summer—and some holidays—we would make the drive to Chelan to see my grandma, who lived with my uncle (well, my half-uncle. His father, now one of my grandma’s countless exes, lives in Arizona.) and my older cousin Maddie, whom I idolized as a kid (and frankly, to this day.) Her mother passed away when she was in first grade, which was the reason they moved in with my grandma, who was then living in Carnation. My mom’s side was always fun to be around, and I loved spending time with them and I’m so thankful for the memories I’ve made with them.

 Maddie taught me dances that I would later that night perform in front of my family, hip hop music cranking out of her heavy purple stereo from her room downstairs. We would also play Xbox games in the hot downstairs TV room until our heads hurt. I would sit on her stool covered in the names of her friends in different colors of gel pens, admiring the walls of Costco-printed photos while I wait for the heat of her flat iron to radiate off my hair. Countless episodes of Hannah Montana were always playing in the background of her room. We loved spending time with each other, as I was her little shadow that would follow her around all the time. She enjoyed it, she would always dress me up or play house with me.

My brother was Maddie’s little baby. They both had bleach blond hair and a smile on their faces, and looked more like siblings than my brother and I. Maddie would keep him in a wrap and walk with him around like his mother. In public, Maddie got stares and everyone wanted to know the story of a teenage mother.

In the summer, my Grandma May would take my brother and me to the pool down the road, piling us in her tin can car, dog hair from her little dog Meiko covered the interior. We would sit in the trunk or stick our heads out the sunroof while she flew down the hill. We would swim until our hands were pruning or dark clouds rolled in, then we would make the thirty-second drive back up the hill to her house.

My uncle would take us in his speed boat on lake Chelan, me screaming and crying for him to slow down. I was used to being on boats and around water in the Northwest, but it terrified me that Lake Chelan was one of the deepest lakes in the United States, at 1,486 feet deep. He would take us to his job to clean the parks, taking us to our favorite one on the beach with a big red playground.

Then there’s my aunt Arielle who would keep us up into the night, munching on candy and talking until it was well into the am. She would love to take us to movies or the park, and

 she always had something fun up her sleeve, whether that be going to the beach and getting Kid-valley or taking a impromptu-trip to Seattle Center, or go to a fun new park in Kirkland. With her, you never know — which was always the best part.

Every so often, Maddie’s sisters (they had different dads, both passed away with their mom, then their mom passed away in her sleep when she was married to my uncle.) would come down, and I would always confused them because they looked like twins. They were always fun to be around as well, and Maddie and I would be glued to their side until they left.

The drive to Chelan was always thrilling, being so beyond excited to see my family that the four hour drive felt like six. If we were lucky, my parents would take the Highway two route to Chelan and stop at Leavenworth for pretzels and ice cream. Once we would finally drive into Chelan at sun down, my mom and I would chant; “Wapato.. Wapato.. Wapato..POINT!”, which was the resort that lured my family to Chelan in the first place. My favorite part was driving up the hill to my grandma’s house, watching the twinkling lights of the little town turn small, while we could almost see the entire lake, and the last view of the dark shadowy Cascades before it was pitch black.

We have a bit of confusing family situation, but I never really questioned it. To be honest, I never completely understood it. Little did I know, that I would come to understand it clearly in the future. The truth of my family unraveled just recently, maybe I’ve been mature enough, maybe they are tired of holding it in, and the shell of my almost perfect family begins to crack and leak the actual truth of the stories I’ve heard. One day at breakfast, the truth of my family really began to spill. Small droplets at first, then buckets on buckets.

I was impatient in my design class, sketching the outlines of something that I wasn’t supposed to be working on. I waited for the bell to ring to dismiss us for winter break. What was

 supposed to be the landscape of the objects on the table in front of me, was now a lightly sketched flower in a meadow, with a wide mountain range and stormy skies behind it. It was nine minutes until we were out for Christmas break, and I was antsy. Everyone was, it had been a long three months of school and it was ​finally​ time for a break. I was pretty excited for Christmas and New Years, but I was mainly excited for my trip to Vancouver with my grandma and cousin. We were only spending a night up in British Columbia, but I was excited nonetheless. I hadn’t seen my cousin Maddie in a few months, and she was always fun to be around, no matter the time or place. My Grandma was almost always up for adventure, as long as it was a groupon deal.

So I spent my weekend in Vancouver with my grandma and cousin, roaming the city for fun adventures with the two of them. At the end of the weekend, I loaded my two bags that carried my clothes in her newer car (the tin can was retired once my cousin Michael was born because it was deemed “unsafe” by my aunt and uncle) We started talking, first about school, then my sailing, her golf tournaments and about the one time we almost burnt the Chelan house down. We chatted about various other things going on in our lives. I somehow found myself talking about my depressive episode in the summer that started between sixth and seventh grade, lasting for about seven months, from June to January the following year. I had isolated myself from everyone else and wouldn’t talk to anyone at school, and would come home crying almost every single day. My grandma said that she went through something similar,

“When Arielle and Mollie went off to college, I was all by myself. They had been my entire life for so long, and they kept my life so busy all the time that I didn’t know what to do without them home. I had a depressive episode like yours for the first year that Mollie was in college. I had been so busy with the girls and with work for years, that when the went off to college and I started working less, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t have

 anyone at the house, and I had to start learning what living on my own was going to be like. Luckily, Mollie was pretty homesick and would make frequent trips home.”

“Yeah, she always talks about how rough that first year for her was.”

I look up at the road ahead us, and see the headlights shine on a sign on the side of the road, “Welcome to Kirkland.”

December in Kirkland, what was supposed to be the best time of the year felt no different from the other days we made the forty-five minute drive up here. It really didn’t feel like winter—or Christmas— at all; the sky was full of clouds which just made the sky bright grey. One of my least favorite weather conditions, but one of the most prominent in Washington. A sleepy headache loomed over me. When we had arrived to Kirkland, we were too tired to make the final leg back to Tacoma to get me home. We stayed that night in Kirkland, where my Aunt Arielle lives, and just recently added a mother-in-law on top of the garage, where my Grandma lived for the last few years. She had pulled the twin bed out of her little couch in the corner. The light pillow that I had slept on made my head hurt, and I couldn’t really fall asleep because that woman has four goddamn clocks in her apartment. Four! I could ​hear​ the clocks ticking, counting away the hours until my untimely demise. The next morning we went pto a small family owned breakfast place outside of Kirkland. I thought some pancakes would help my mood, and it actually kind of did.

My grandmother and I sat at the window of the little breakfast place, stuffing our faces with pancakes, and talking about my grandfather. She was mainly doing the talking, I ate my food slowly; asking questions every so often. We only saw my grandfather a few times a year, once for Christmas, and once during the summer, when my aunt forced the rest of us to go golfing in Seattle, even though none of us knew what the hell we were doing.

 “When they were very young, your Grandpa Ginger promised he would take the girls to the North Pole. Arielle was maybe seven, and Mollie five, and then they disappeared one day. I got them almost the entire month and he got one weekend each month. One day he just took them, without telling me, and it was not his weekend. I showed up at the school to pick the girls up, and I was informed that they weren’t there and that Ginger had picked them up earlier for a ‘doctor’s appointment.’ I made a goddamn fool of myself in front of the kindergarten and 2nd grade teacher, breaking down hysterically.

“After making a trip to Ginger’s home, seeing that there wasn’t anyone there, I went home that night without my daughters. I had the worst night, pacing back and forth until the sun rose again. I went to work the next morning trying to pretend everything was fine, and pretending I had slept the previous night. I repeated this cycle many, many times, until I got a call two weeks later from Ginger, saying that he took my daughters to the ‘North Pole’ to see Santa and that Mollie was misbehaving because she was screaming for her mother. He yelled at me for being a crappy mother and not raising my kids correctly because of Mollie’s meltdowns, and I cried of anger and pure hatred for the man that took my daughter away from me when he didn’t have the right to.”

“What did you do?”

“He told me to drive up to the Canadian border to come collect my kids.” My mouth hung open. “Wow.”

“The sad thing is this wasn’t the first time stuff like that happened. He would always threaten me and the kids, and he had me worried constantly.”

“When we were together, he cheated on me multiple times and would come home from being at other women’s houses, sometimes he would bring women home. And after the divorce, he refused to pay child support”

 “Really?”

“He wrote me a check for $2,000 when the girls were in college, when they were on their own supporting themselves financially.”

“So you didn’t need it?”

“I had already planned out to pay for some of their college funds and they were on their way to paying it off themselves, so we took a few weeks off and spent it in Hawaii.”

“That’s the biggest ‘eff you’ I’ve ever heard of.”

During our entire conversation, my Grandma remained calm, acting as if this was normal thing that occured her words would start to slur and her eyes would fill with tears every so often, but her voice remained steady. My Aunt is usually the one to initiate plans with my grandfather, and I had never really noticed this until this moment.

I had learned he was a pretty bad person, and I knew I could never tell my mother that I knew of any of these events because she probably hid it from me and my brother for a good reason, and recalling these things would not be a light conversation. What would I even say to her? “Mom I’m sorry for what you have to go through”? I knew the light would drain from her eyes, the smile from her face, and she would probably look at me with concern or even worry. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have that conversation with her yet. In that moment, I was so stunned by the news of this, that questions later popped up that I didn’t even think about that second.

Did my dad even know? Why do they not have a restraining order against Ginger? Why do we make bi-annual trips to Ballard to see him? Because he would get angry if he didn’t see his grandchildren? He seemed like a pretty okay person, and they trusted him enough to leave me alone with him on drives to restaurants after our attempted golf playing. I was too shy to say anything, and I didn’t know him too well. Frankly, he probably didn’t have anything to say to say. All of these events swirled in my head, and I wondered how it affected my aunt and mother. Did

 they even know it was going on at the time? Did grandma try to hide it so the girls weren’t worried? Had they witnessed it?

My grandma had read my mind, and said, “I remember the night that the girls witnessed Ginger push me down the stairs in my own home. Mollie was probably most affected by it—maybe because she was so little—or maybe because she was a little more sensitive than Arielle, or she saw the situation for what is was.”

I was at a lost for words, and I didn’t know how to respond, so I just continued to listen with open ears.

“Mollie screamed at him to stop, Arielle sat in the corner and cried.”

Knowing the two, that was a complete switch. My aunt Arielle was normally the loud one, always filling the space with conversation. My mom was normally quiet, not having a chance to talk since Arielle would dominate the conversation. Never in a million years would I think that they could switch roles like that. The brain does odd things under stress and trauma.

“I can’t believe that.” I said, not knowing what else to say but the thoughts racing around in my brain.

“Did they have to go to counseling?” I asked, I had put my fork down and my pancakes started to turn cold, but I couldn’t care less, I was more interested in this story than the strawberry pancakes in front of me.

“Yes of course. After that incident, I decided that they needed counseling. Both girls had counseling for years, Mollie had a lot more than Arielle. For a while I was really worried about her because she had no sign of improvement. She went three times a week, contrary to Arielle’s one appointment and did two extra years than Arielle.”

And before she even said it, my face fell and my heart dropped. I knew it before she even said it. My body went numb, goose bumps formed on my skin, and my throat ached as it

 held back tears. We said it in unison, the single heartbreaking thing that I had never known about my mom before this moment.

“That’s why she became a physcologist”

A heavy load weighed down on me, and my heart broke for my poor mom. How could she handle all that, at such a small age? And why had I never heard about this before? She was always a little sun beam of happiness and positive energy, how could anyone break her that much?

“Yes, she wanted to help people that go through the same things she did, and why she was more interested in being a school counselor.” My mom would sometimes tell us stories of the kids she had dealt with in the past. Some cases she would just help the kids with basic problems, getting grades up, feuds between friends, normal high school drama. In other cases though, she had to call CPS or contact the police. She worked at a lower income high school in Federal Way for about two years. But I never knew that her dedication in her short-lived career was rooted in her own childhood traumas.

When I was younger, I believed my family to be pretty normal, but just like any other family, we are far from that. All this information came to me in the span of the last year, and has kind of hit me in the face. I have learned many things from the spillage of my family’s secret over the last year, and not just about my family. About humans overall, our tendency to hide and bottle things up: to put on a mask to seem perfect and normal. Well, after all these years of believing my family was happy and normal, I can finally admit that they are not. It’s okay, it means they are human and they have flaws. They’ve lied, cheating, been wrong and covered things up. It has created the person they are today, the person that I cherish in my heart, despite the pain and suffering they have had to go through in their awful past, that I can comfort

 and help get through it and live to be the best person they can be. There’s humanity and flaws in all of us, not matter how much we try to hide it.

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