Emptying the garbage can of memories left me with a hole, and an open space that needed to be filled. I knew that having pleased people as a child was a way of life. It was all I knew and it became my pattern for almost 45 years.
As Alex, Maus and I stood in front of “our” house I pointed out my grandparent’s bedroom window. I still thought of the house I was born in as grandfather’s house. I had a hard time accepting the fact someone else now lived there. I found myself returning to old patterns of thinking. My old daily pattern of reaction was still very much alive and I knew I had to change it as well.
I needed to learn that I am not controlled by circumstances, or by someone’s feelings. But I didn’t know how. Did I need control at all? If the answer was yes, then what kind of control? If no, what did I need to do instead? I knew I needed to stop tiptoeing around other people and voice my own opinion when I felt the need to do so. But what was my opinion? I also knew I needed to stop trying to please everyone else. I knew all this in my mind, but didn’t know how to change.
After Lella died my grandparent’s bedroom became my parent’s bedroom. Before the change the room had been a happy one for me. My beautiful iron bed stood next to Lella’s. Grandpa had painted it turquoise the Christmas before Lella died. The big grandfather clock stood between two windows facing east. Whenever I was upset or cried Lella took me to the bedroom and set me on her lap. She told me to watch the shiny brass oscillator going from right to left and to imagine a meadow with many flowers. To imagine sheep playing in the meadow and munching on the flowers. The day my parents moved in, my memories about the room changed.
Everything grandpa established over the years was by hard labor, which my parents claimed as theirs. Grandpa built the house yet was banished from it to live with his cousin. I didn’t understand why my parents sold the wonderful carved wooden beds grandpa had made for them and bought ugly ones.
Once I’d developed into a young lady with breasts my life changed yet again. Heidi lent me her bra so I could determine what size I needed. When I looked in the mirror I decided I needed more to cover the breasts and less hooks in the back. Heidi was a lot bigger than I and I was lost in thought about why women needed bras anyway, when I was startled by my mother standing in the door. How long had she been there? I wondered. Embarrassed, I covered myself and tried not to look at her. Every time I saw her, or my father, unexpectedly like that I felt guilt and panic overtook me.
“So,” she said, “my daughter already needs a bra!”
“Please,” I begged her, “don’t tell anybody.”
She wore a nasty grin. “Get ready for work.”
When I got to work Margit, our secretary, had a surprise for me. She gave me her beautiful yellow lace petticoat. It was the prettiest gift anyone had ever given me, except for the red ball with white polka dots my godmother gave me for my sixth Christmas.
Margit’s gift made me feel so proud. Nobody could destroy the day for me. Even our customer’s commented that “We didn’t know Sieglinde could smile, even her eyes sparkle.” Would have loved to tell everybody about my gift, but our customers were all men.
Mr. Hering, a regular customer and a driving instructor, came for gas. That day he didn’t call me “poor girl”. Usually, he shook his head and smiled. While I filled the tank and cleaned the windshield on his car I daydreamed. I was happy, the sun was shining and summer was almost upon us. The winter had been bitterly cold. When I washed the floors of the gas station the water froze immediately to the stone tile floor. The skin on the inside of my hands froze to the metal handle of the gas pump and ripped off when I turned the handle loose.
I thought, next winter is a long way off and I should enjoy the day. Mr. Hering used his charge card and I had to write down the total so he could sign it. He was inside the office talking to my mother and both were looking in my direction and gesturing.
When I walked into the office she said, “Tell Mr. Hering what you already need to wear now.” I wanted to die. She thought it was funny that I was caught trying on a bra in front of the mirror. Mr. Hering didn’t make any comments and instead, excused himself. I had to go through the same humiliation when Mr. Hermes came in. Only God knew how much I hated my mother.
As soon as the business slowed down I hid behind the car wash building, cursing her. Cursing, I found, was always better than crying. When I cried my eyes turned red and everybody knew I’d been crying. I didn’t like answering their prying questions.
It wasn’t long before I heard her calling and yelling names at me because I hadn’t come right away. “Let’s go to the department store since it’s quiet,” she said. “I’ll buy you a bra that matches the color of your petticoat.” She’d said it in front of the male employees. I was so embarrassed. “Don’t act so stupid,” she grumbled, “you have to learn how to behave like a young lady.”
I asked myself, how do young ladies behave? Not like my mother, I was sure of that. When we entered the store I regretted ever having said anything about a bra. My mother was all over the store telling everybody that would listen that she was buying a bra for her daughter. She even had the nerve to tell me to put one on then come out and model it in front of all those people. I felt so ashamed.
I hated all Sundays. First, my parents did not get up in time to go to work, then everything had to be done in a rush and nothing went fast enough for my father. I remember it was almost 9:00 a.m. and they were still in bed. Mother came out and told me to put on my new bra and petticoat and come into the bedroom. There was too much sweetness in her voice when she said, “Your father would like to see how his girl looks.” I immediately shrunk back. “Don’t you want your father to be in a good mood today?”
I gave in. I was doing something again that I didn’t like to do just to keep the peace. Nobody ever cared what I wanted. They were still in bed when I walked in.
“Your father can’t see you this way, come up and dance on top of the foot board from one end to the other, like a mannequin.”
I hated her, but I obeyed. As usual, when I had to do something I didn’t like, I would escape into another personality to keep my sanity.
I vaguely heard my mother say, “Take off your blouse so your father can see your new bra.” I reacted mechanically and removed the blouse. “Take off your skirt and show him how good it matches your petticoat.” Automatically the skirt came off. “Isn’t she going to be a beautiful girl?” I seemed to recall her saying.
My father got up and motioned to me, “Come here and take the bra off, I want to see how big they are.” When he grabbed my breasts I crossed my arms.
I was overwhelmed by hate. How could they have done this to me?
“Don’t act so bashful,” Mother said, “he is your father.”
My father scowled, “She won’t be perfect, the nipples are too low and her legs are too short.” He turned to me. “You can go now.”
The smirk on my mother’s face disappeared. Nearly naked I ran out of the room.
It was awful. I couldn’t describe how I felt at that moment. I was sick the rest of the day, but I still had to go to work. Sickness wasn’t an excuse not to work.
I don’t know why I tolerated constant humility. Had I already adopted their beliefs of right and wrong? I had no answer. One thing I did realize was that my “second” personality took over when the real me couldn’t handle the situation. My other ego suffered for me and helped me through painful, uncomfortable situations. It was like passing out and waking up in a body that has no feelings.
The empty feeling I have as an adult is certainly not what I hoped for. I expected relief and happiness to fill the void. I expected to know what I wanted and who I was. What changed? Would I always have the empty feeling? Would I have to fight one shadow after another? My life must have a meaning. Where does the satisfaction everyone talks about come from?