Chained to the Past

June 28, 2011
I walk through the mall, my family by my side. My two daughters chase each other around their father's legs, and my son, only one and a half, peacefully sleeps in his stroller, oblivious to the ruckus his sisters are making. I grasp my husband's hand, revelling in the comfort of having everyone I loved next to me.

As I stroll past the many people, talking or laughing or simply taking in their surroundings, I notice a head of dark red, wavy hair step into the store to my left. The image of that hair tugs at me, and I stop, abruptly stop in the middle of the crowded mall, just to watch her progress further inside and disappear behind racks of clothing. It is only when I can no longer see her that I shake myself out of my reverie and pull myself from my husband, whispering an apology and leaving him and my children waiting outside, confused and wondering what could have caused my sudden departure.

Following her footsteps inside, I watch from a distance away as she giggles to her own husband and runs her hand through her own little son's and daughter's hair. She's pregnant, and one hand rests on her large stomach. She looks up, and I catch a glimpse of her face. It is then that I recognize her, finally, and a wave of memories rushes to overwhelm me. Memories I had tried to leave behind when I shaped my own future. But here she stands, forcing me to reminisce after years of denial.

My cousin. I don't know if that's what to call her, seeing as she was only that in blood, but in my mind I address her as such. She played such a small role in my life, when I was barely seven or eight, back when I worshipped her for her maturity and age, when I was innocent and naïve. And yet in the same way, when her family left my life forever, at least until today, she revealed the rest of the world to me.

She had left me, left with her mother and father and her much older brothers, and had thus left my side. After everyone had taken sides, I asked to see her, but my parents would only exchange cryptic glances and shake their heads. I couldn't see her, not then or ever again. I only understood later, after I had watched my life split apart.

Our families were at war, in manner of speaking. I used to expect my aunts' smiles as they handed me a little toy and my uncles' grins when they slipped me extra allowance, grew used to playing video games with my many cousins or taking care of the younger ones. I loved reading in the kitchen while my grandmother cooked, in front of a bag of chips or a bowl of fruit. I looked forward to visiting them every week, without fail. And while I sensed an undercurrent of tension, my childish mind pushed it to the side. It was nothing. Just an argument, like when I argued with my friends over who got to ride the slide or kick the ball first. If only that were true.

I stare at my cousin, taking in her happy smile and cheerful disposition. I remembered that smile, from months of learning the ways of her older friends, those people I could never even hope to reach. She would crack a smile when I didn't get a joke, and I would beg her to tell me, tiring both of us out with my repeated claims that I was old enough to know. I was old enough, couldn't she please tell me? With a cherry on top?

And then, just shy of my eighth birthday, she moved. At the time I didn't get it, didn't get why we never visited any of my relatives, why my parents fought late at night when they thought I wasn't listening. I could hear them, and I absorbed adult words like adultery and words easier for me to understand, although their connotation was just as bad, like theft and cheating.

My parents never told me, but as I got older I realized more and more about what was going on. My cousin, the one I easily named when asked about my idol, had left with her family because her parents had stolen from my grandparents. They had taken money, and gotten disowned because of that and repeated offenses, and for a long time I refused to believe it. It couldn't be true, because she wasn't not like that. Was she?

It turned out the rest of the uncles and aunts and cousins I adored weren't much better. And we grew farther and farther apart, until it got to the point that I would see my other cousins at school and brush past them in the hallways, not acknowledging the bond that resulted from the years we had spent as playmates. They were trash, if their parents were any indication.

The list of wrongs was lengthy, and more got added as soon as I learned of them. My grandmother? Sweet, loving, and as grandmotherly as one could get? Also greedy and stereotypical and the reason my father might have left my mother early in her pregnancy with me, although thankfully he never did. My grandfather? Who helped me hook up the Play Station when I was seven and taught me to ride my first bicycle? Also the aforementioned cheater, whose dirty secrets were pushed under the rug to keep up the impression of a perfect family, although of course even before I was born was anything but.

And my uncles and aunts. They had their own list, ranging from lying to theft to outright cheating, as worthy of being disowned as my idol and cousin's parents, although my grandparents seemed to fear the loss of all their family. Their children suffered my new prejudice, and as I watch my cousin, I realize I had never asked what they had done to deserve it.

All of this flashes through my mind, several years compacted into a few minutes, as I look through the glass at the front of the store, glimpsing my family sitting down on the chairs in the middle of the mall, laughing and in my daughters' case, giggling as their father tickles them. I see my son, my precious bundle, waking up from his short nap and stretching. I then glance back to my cousin, who had since moved on farther back, barely visible through the clothes, although I can see her holding her husband's hand, like I had done only some time before.
Obviously, I see my choices. I could leave my past behind as I have always done, and walk out to rejoin my family. I could ignore her, pretend she never existed, pretend that I had never cried over her seeming disappearance so many years ago. I could do that.

And yet, as with most decisions, I have the other choice. I used to dream of building bridges over the distance between my cousins and former friends and me, and this is the first step. I can see myself reuniting the rest of my family and not allowing future generations to ever experience the turmoil we had to go through. I reach out my hand in anticipation, before jerking it back.
I can't. I can't risk the heartache. I see her turn to leave, brushing only inches past my hiding place. I could have reached out, barely half a foot, and stopped her, consequentially beginning to bridge the gap. But I don't. I just watch, a tear slipping down my cheek as she leaves my life a second time.

She steps out, and I move to watch her disappear into the crowd. I stand there, in the store, staring after her, long after her departing figure becomes nothing more significant than that of the regular shopper at the mall.
Minutes later, I finally step out of the store, walking towards my husband and children. He gives me a reassuring hug, not inquiring about the lone tear running down the length of my face. He knows I'll tell him when I'm ready.

"Do you want to leave?" he asks. He may know nothing about the silent scene in the store or the thoughts threatening to drown me with their weight, but he can see that I'm definitely not okay.

I shake my head, already pushing my emotions to the farthest corner of my mind. "I'm fine." He stares in disbelief, and he has a right to. I probably look anything but. "I am, I promise. And anyway, doesn't Evelyn want something from Build-A-Bear?"

My daughter happily laughs and hugs me. "Thank you, Mommy!" She's oblivious to my internal disquiet, and I plan to keep it that way.

"Let's go then." I move my family in that direction, turning my back on the direction she left in. And as we leave, I can't help but think that yet again, I'm running away.

The only question is, can I ever run far enough?

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Sonia VanDyke said...
Jul. 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm
It's absolutely amazing, like always. Good Job and keep up the amazing pieces of literature :) 
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