Driving to VA from NYC a few days ago I had an argument with my older sister. We shared a room together for around 8 years. Twin canopy beds, and my bed was by the window, hers was by the door because she kept the monsters away. The doll “chatty Cathy” could have been named after me. My sister and me would fight and I would lose and end up getting a “beatin” by our Mom. I would get a spanking every day for years mostly because of my having what they called “a smart mouth.” My mother is from South Carolina and that is how southern black folks of that generation were programmed by a legacy of slavery to discipline their children. A girl with a voice was not looked upon well in my family. I drove everyone in my family crazy. My sister is a kind and loving woman with a huge heart and she is my sister, but we are not friends.
When my ex boyfriend moved out of my studio apartment it was a such a relief. For some reason when I was moving the furniture around I thought for the first time about how hard it must have been for my sister to have been a high school girl living with an immature kid in elementary school. I saw the possible roots of many of our many arguments through the years.
When my sister and me shared a room our brother had his own room. My parents wanted us to all sleep on the same level of the townhouse they bought so, there we were on the same level. I remember having the brilliant idea that my brother move to the basement, we actually use the living room on the first floor that never got used… and then my sister and me could have our own rooms. But that would not work because we all watched TV in the basement. So that was that.
I’m 8 years younger than my sister and 10 years younger than my brother, so it’s as if I am an only child with siblings. My older siblings grew up pre-JW (before my Mom became a Jehovah’s Witness) My older siblings got my parents when they were fresh and new, in their 20’s. I got my parents when they were in their 30’s…there’s a big difference. By the time I was 10 they were tired. The energy and vitality that my parents gave my brother and sister are evident in how my brother and sister’s lives have evolved. Both are married, my brother was the first and youngest to marry and is the only one of us who have children. My sister married later and has no kids and I’m single and childfree.
In our argument, my sister basically sang the same song I’ve been hearing my whole life… I’m spoiled. Our parents had more money when I was a teenager so I got a car, they bought me a piano when I was 7 because I begged for it then I hated the piano and the whole family still talks about me to this day as being the one who got the piano and never plays a note. I talk too much. I must have all the attention of the room. Everything is all about me.
My sister said that I roll my eyes at her or look away when she’s talking, always think that I have the right answer… she said that I made her feel small.
The funny thing is…she does the exact same thing to me and she adds like… “Umm are you done?!??! Can I FINISH?!?! and EXCUSE me”, as we fight to communicate with one another.
Okay. I’m taking a breath.
In meditation I’ve been brutally honest with myself, taking a look at how and why I have used my voice to people during my lifetime and the impact on other people. I’ve started to see some connections. Fear breeds a sharp tongue.
Here’s the thing, my Mother tells me that I came out of the womb screaming and haven’t stopped talking since. I’ve talked even before my teeth grew in, I was active, looking for attention. I used to sit on the couch watching TV (my lifeline to the outside world), I would love to sit in one spot and bounce my back against the couch. I bounced so much that there was a bald spot in the back of my head and the fabric wore away from the fabric of the couch and you could see the foam beneath.I should have been dancing. I should have been acting from a very, very, young age.But instead of my parents looking for creative solutions to harness what seemed to be a an annoying personality for good, their religious programming dictated that they squelch those impulses.
After a while… I could no longer be squelched.
When I was young, my voice was clear and when I asked my parents for what I wanted, most of the time I got it. I don’t think my sister ever asked. I mean, it’s not like I got the best hand of the deal. My brother and sister got to be…normal. They got Holidays, Christmas and Birthdays, Boys & Girl Scouts, they got to live all over the world when my dad was in the military. They got to be with the family members who faded away because of the religious beliefs. They got to be alive when my parents were young and could party and dance and play with them. I got a good end too. I was there when my parents had more financial abundance and wisdom. I’m able to be with them now and get to know them better as they stride into their ending chapter.
I’m still talking and as it turns out, I use my voice to make my living. As I am using my authentic voice I am able to connect to my natural state of joy, and from that place I’m beginning to know when to be silent. I still get spanked for using my voice, but I know my voice matters.
As I dive into diversity, bringing people of different races and sexual orientations together work through the trauma of institutional racism and homophobia and connect to the fact that we are all one, I have to look at my family of origin to gain deeper understanding and wisdom and develop empathy.
The mean things that my sister and I have endured from one another are out in the stratosphere. But so is all of the love. My sister held me when I was a baby. I would sit at the top of the staircase by the closed-door of the basement listening when she would go down to the basement to play her records singing along in full harmony with Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Labelle , Chaka Kahn and Melba Moore. My sister was music in our family. God I used to love to hear my sister sing. Boy, can she sing. And I remember that she would hold me in her arms when I was a baby and sing to me.
Voices matter even with family.