There were always great expectations for me–as the treasured first born of two proud families.
However my mother said that I was always rather average. I wasn’t able to potty train at 6 months–despite the swan seat my Nana bought me, and I didn’t walk early either–despite the pretzel gold fish that the same Nana used to entice me.
Talking may have been the exception–which they soon came to regret.
“Chatterbox,” my grandfather chided. “Please stop talking for one moment,” my mother begged.
And yet, they continued to dole out expectations. “You are the oldest grand daughter Kelly, you must set a good example for everyone else.”
“You are my oldest niece Kelly, your cousins all look up to you.”
“You are our oldest daughter, Kelly, your sisters emulate you.”
Dressed in fancy clothes, telling everyone what to do, my mother says I was thirty by age two. No wonder.
“Dinnertime was particularly stressful,” she said, helping me understand why I had become so bossy, and why I didn’t like sit down meals.
“There were so many aunts and uncles and grandparents telling you what to do that it gave ME a stomach ache,” she confessed.
Peas were to be eaten with mash potatoes.
Steaks were to be cut like so.
Elbows belonged off the table.
Young ladies didn’t chew like cows.
It wasn’t until my late-twenties that I could relax at the table again. Meals that had once been places of instruction and correction–later became places of argument. Often I was sent from the table to my room.
Unless it was a table of younger children to whom I was to attend. Then afterward, my grandmother would help me with my French.
“I always wanted to be a translator at the UN,” she said, “but I never finished college.”
She was married with a new baby before graduation. Four more babies followed, and a life at home–without the satisfaction of a career of her own.
I felt the weight of her expectations–not just for my life–but for the life she never led. She had so many hopes for me, but then she died before I got to realize a one.
Thus my life was cloaked in great expectations–which served to nurture and smother me.
When faced with an unwanted pregnancy at 16, there was no one I could tell.
There was no room in the mythology of “Kelly” to allow for such disgrace.
Though my boyfriend suggested marriage, I firmly declined, keeping my eye on college and a future of travel. I refused to let anything get in the way of claiming the life that my grandmother lost.
By my late teens, the great expectations were self-propelling–and out of control. I became so driven that I was tortured by headaches on weekends, not knowing how to slow down–without being sick.
During summer “vacation,” I managed my uncle’s restaurant, working a hundred hours a week; and when I returned to school and was diagnosed with monoucleosis, I insisted on going to classes and condemned myself for letting my grades slip below straight A’s.
My professors questioned my lagging performance, but it never occurred to me to ask for help or exception. My father was a doctor, as was his father, and his father; we knew how to be tough; coddling was for wimps.
My father actually knew everything, especially about me, and I longed to hear his latest proclamation of success. More often, it was criticism: “Hold in your stomach, Kelly,” he said, and so I did. “Your hair looks much better straight,” he said, and so I removed the curls. “You need some color,” he said, and so I spent some more time outside. “You need to loose weight,” he said, and so I did, until he told me that I was too thin.
No matter what I did or how I looked, I could never reach his moving target of approval. And once my parents divorced and he remarried, he quickly lost interest in me altogether.
For a long time, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Our last remaining connections were grades, but by the time I graduated from college, I had to convince him to attend the award ceremony where I was honored for being at the top of my department. (In the end, he skipped it for another event.)
Despite my success at school, my relatives were disappointed that I hadn’t become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. They had expected so much of me.
I made up for it in the classroom. At the end of each day, I would tutor and run student counsel meetings and volunteer as a mentor. On vacation, I taught summer school and tutored some more. I couldn’t get enough of work. “Notice me. I’m important,” I seemed to say.
I was afraid of silence. I filled it with everything I could–with television or radio or more often, people; Otherwise, I’d hear the noises in my head–the ones that told me what to do and how to do it better.
“Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly,” they’d echo…
After two miscarriages, my doctor urged me to slow down and consider taking some time off. This terrified me–but not as much as never being a mother.
What followed was a decade of growth and pruning and slowing down–so much so that I became afraid of noise, and of work–and of the return of the Great Expectations–mine and theirs.
I spent another handful of years waffling between retreat and engagement, confused about who I was and what I wanted and how to know either.
Which brings me to today, where I sit in a quiet house enjoying the silence, all the while holding GREAT EXPECTATIONS for a new role to which I aspire.
This is a place that I could bring my grandmother’s atlas and claim her lost hopes. This is a place where I can feed that part of me who loves the world–not in the driven backpacking days of my college years–but with the wisdom and heart of a mother.
This integration of past and present and future has unleashed a fiery dragon from my belly–oozing the unexpressed bile of dozens of years when I couldn’t hear–the precious voice–of my own–insides.
Kelly Salasin, November 5, 2010
Click here to read the previous installment, The Zen Monk in Me in the series; or the ensuing post: The Revolution Inside or here to see the full life path journey–home.)