Trash. It’s what I was called growing up in a tiny town full of judgmental folks who, as it turns out, were just better at hiding their own dirty laundry than my dysfunctional family was. Everyone had their secrets, their failures, their shame inducing moments. This is going to be about just that; the purposeful degradation of others in order to hide or deflect our own personal foibles, if you will.
I’m going in deep so hang on to your hats!
When I was around 8 years old we moved from the state I was born in to a much more rural area in another state. I don’t see any sense in naming this town or state because it’s the people who created the atmosphere of gossipy backstabbing and constant belittlement not the locale. And, it was these people who made living in this small town feel “not quite right” for me. Well, they shared in it, but weren’t the sole reason. We weren’t a healthy family unit to begin with and I’m certain they could sense it, like hungry sharks can sense chum churning in the ocean just waiting for a chance to gobble it up!
They circled our inner turmoil with delight and picked and picked and picked until all of our previous wounds burst open again. It’s hard to recover when there is always another predator waiting in the shadows to partake in the bountiful bucket of YUCK that was our family. And, yes we’ve all heard the saying that only hurt people hurt people and that was true in our case but, it still felt very personal and very vindictive. Was it just my imagination? Was I overthinking the situation? Maybe, but these “hurt people” seemed to enjoy the heaping of scorn and the stabbing of backs and the not so whispered gossip that was clearly intended to get back to us. “Oh, you heard that? I was just kidding. Don’t be so sensitive!”
The utter misfortune of moving from one emotionally precarious situation to another, and then another and then another was a big part of my childhood. My family moved around a lot and I recall going to kindergarten in two different states before being moved further south a year later. Multiple different houses, different towns, moving one state over and then back to where I was born, only to up and move on to another state entirely. No wonder I never felt like I belonged anywhere. To this day, if asked where I grew up, I’m not sure what to say. Do you mean the place I’ve lived the longest or the place I learned adults can be very cruel and they can’t be trusted when they say, “this is for your own good”?
My very first encounter with the local folks came not long after we arrived. It started with a sneering look cast my way by a woman at the church my father chose for us. He chose many different churches but this one seemed to fit the bill for him in that it looked the other way on the issues of domestic violence and child abuse, two things the man didn’t believe existed so it was a virtual match made in hell for us. We were told we had to attend every time their doors were open, no matter what and if we were caught misbehaving then a beating, physical or verbal, would await us at home. Every Sunday and Wednesday were met with deep dread and even our summers became consumed with church camp, when some of the good church folk took pity on me and paid my way, or “vacation” bible school. If all of our time was eaten up by talk of sinning and how God would punish us then there wouldn’t be anytime for fun! Fun is for the rich and church was for people like us, I was told. A training ground to prepare for our “great reward” which, I quickly found wasn’t so great and involved more punishment than actual reward.
So, back to this sneering woman; I recall her face very vividly, her gaze of searing judgment, the pursed lips, the perfectly coifed hair and stylish clothes. She was looking at me as if I were a steaming bag of garbage she didn’t want obstructing her rose-colored view and her crinkled nose indicated she feared breathing the air around me. I could never compare to the utter angels she birthed so I was dismissed as being beneath her and those perfect offspring. At that point I knew I would never be friends with any of the other children in that church. Oh, we would talk and pretend to get along but I wouldn’t be invited for sleepovers or birthday parties. I wasn’t one of them and I would never be good enough. So much for those loudly proclaimed Christian values and ideals. They only applied to those of a certain socio-economic standing, those born into the correct families and not interlopers who dared cross the tracks into their fair town, filled with idyllic 1950’s, all-white, male dominated nostalgia. You know, from the GOOD OLD DAYS!
And, who exactly were they GOOD for again? Not me. Not my female family members who were subjected to the bible-backed adage that “boys will be boys”, men are in charge and women have no say, no power, no worth. In looking back, everything added up to a pretty bleak outcome for those labeled meek and female. As for myself, I was far from meek. In fact, I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut, especially in situations where I knew something wasn’t right. It didn’t matter if it was the brother of a friend, the son of another church member, a male teacher or even a male member of my own family. If I felt I was being treated unfairly or expected to quietly endure personal insults, I would try to get at least a few words in before being shut down by withering castigations or, in the case of my father, a fist. It was worth it though. I knew they would never be right.
Of course, as with any tale of woe involving tiny towns with emotionally stunted, petty people there are always the “exceptions to the perception” and I have the great pleasure of still being in contact with a few of those gems. No clan mentality for them, no strict adherence to small town pride and being loyal to your own kind. Own kind? Was it just the color of skin or how and who they prayed to? No, that wasn’t it completely because they made a few, on the surface, accommodations for the very few minorities in town but, I would suspect that if they had been poor their happy song of inclusion would have sounded much different. Just a hunch. Was it the similarity in size of their bank accounts? Again, not entirely because sometimes the HAVES extended a hand to a few who didn’t HAVE AS MUCH but, the cavate was looks. As in, “she’s pretty so we’ll let her on the team”, until they used her up, tore her down and then trashed her reputation that is. No, it seemed the kind they were referencing was more of a homogenized jug of lukewarm milk, devoid of any flavor, culture, imagination, humility, empathy or compassion. Just straight hatefulness chased with a side of bitter vindictive spite. Followers, the whole lot of them. Stuck in a box labeled NEVER CHANGE-NEVER PROGRESS.
I was neither jealous of the small town ruling class nor did I feel sorry for those still stuck there after getting married young, divorced, remarried, and then divorced again. Despite the assumptions that may be made about what I am describing here, I simply wanted out, I never wanted to be them. I had no desire to take their spot on top of the dog-eat-dog heap and while I may not have gotten as far away as I wanted, in my heart I know I’m insulated from any reprisals. Let them come though, if they want. I’m ready, as always. And, that’s the thing, I actually was pretty adept at dealing with judgement and criticism because I faced it daily in my childhood.
Yes, the insults they reserved for me; troublemaker, thief, white-trash, dirt poor, stuck-up, whatever made-up nonsense that came to their narrow little minds, stung and made me want to lash out. But, I bided my time instead. I smirked at their attempts to put me in the low place they felt I belonged, laughed out loud and kept on moving. It was my defense mechanism and I think that might have pissed off more than a few. I know that many in that town readily described my father as a know-it-all asshole so, maybe I should thank him for that? He did teach me how to really agitate the feudal class of that rural fiefdom. The only difference is that I made sure my “knowledge” was accurate rather than the unsubstantiated bloviated ramblings of arrogance. That man possessed enough hot air to power a dirigible all the way to Australia and back! Ask around, I’m not exaggerating.
Anyway, here we are at a point in time when we are no longer as young as we used to be and yet, not as old as we could be or, as Paul Simon would say:
Now the years are rolling by me—
They are rockin’ evenly.
I am older than I once was,
And younger than I’ll be.
(1969) Simon & Garfunkel
I have moved on from my childhood but, many from my youth have not and they remain trapped. Some have passed away entirely too young, having lived their lives on the edge, either by way of drugs and alcohol or they suffered the potential physical ramifications that go along with following such a dark path. Some fought debilitating health issues bravely only to have those diseases win. And then there are others who ventured out and traveled well beyond the borders of town, state and country. These wonderful few have experienced the immense joy and satisfaction that comes from living in the moment rather than wallowing in the shadows of the past. I see all of their purported moments of happiness on social media, some may be exaggerated, that I know, but for the most part I can tell which have grown up and which have stagnated.
To even think that life was better back then is so ridiculous to me because finally letting go of caring what others thought has been the healthiest aspect of my adult life. It took me a long time but, I’m now at peace and all of the hurtful interactions get lumped into a category of petty things insecure people did that no longer matter. None of those early negative influences have any power over me now. Not the woman from my parent’s church, not the parents of one of my former friend’s who regularly called me and my family those people because we weren’t from there and were poor. Not the big-eyed, red-headed little girl who actually did invite me over for sleepovers for a while only to drop me like a scalding rock as soon as the connected and popular girls started taking notice of her. It always started out good, let’s be friends forever…but only until someone better comes along. She was new to town just like I had been a few years before but her desire to status climb was greater than mine so I couldn’t keep up.
Many years later I received a Facebook friend request from her. Our first conversation involved her apologizing to me for spitting water in my face on the last day of school when we were in 8th grade. I had forgotten all about it until she brought it up but then I started really thinking about it. I wanted to ask if she did it because she knew she could get away with doing something potentially humiliating to someone like me who was unseen, poor and unpopular or did she do it simply because that was her true nature? To be cruel simply to gain additional clout with the popular girls?
I accepted her friend request and we commented back and forth on pictures and posts for a while but then, after she scoured my connections for the people she really wanted to reconnect with I was unfriended, again. Thinking this was simply a mistake, because we were now adults, I reached out and sent a new friend request myself. We repeated the same pattern as before, commented here and there and then I was banished yet again! I finally got the answer to my earlier question. I won’t be sending another request.
Some things, and people never change but I have changed a great deal, with the help of a lot of hard, personal introspection and therapy. I own that and will announce it every chance I get. I remain a considerate person, a good friend for those who need one but also a determined woman who refuses to diminish her enthusiasm and passion for certain causes in order to keep from ruffling the feathers of the unchanging throng. That may be where my past and present collided but, I can’t turn my volume down and I shouldn’t have to. Having something so banal and juvenile happen as an adult, like being deleted as a “friend” on social media just makes me scratch my head, express a momentary feeling of annoyance but then keep on moving forward.
I will still wonder about her from time to time though. Is she really happy? Do her comments on mutual friends posts really ring true? I wish her well and hold no grudge because, after all, we don’t really know one another. We are grown women who have been apart for over 30 years. That’s a whole character on Friends, or like a 1991 Honda Accord, big red bow attached, as a present for completing college on-time. In other words, and aside from my clumsy attempt at humor over how old we are…it was a lifetime ago. The cuteness has faded and the power steering no longer works.
And, isn’t the real point here to not respond at all? To not waste precious time? That small town and the small-minded people in it, connected to it and, impacted by the experience of having lived there are all just a small drop in the larger ocean that is the world. It’s okay for me to let them think they have bested me because I know otherwise and can just smile and nod should I ever see them again. Or not, it won’t change a thing for me or them. No engagement, no catching up because I already know where they are and what they have been doing since I was last in their presence. But, they have no idea what I’ve been doing and that, right there, is my power. If they had stayed in my life and were an actual part of my sorrows and joys then maybe, just maybe, they would be allowed to know me. I have never been one to tell all and have been accused of being vague and secretive but I choose to call it self preservation and the wise conservation of personal energy. It keeps me true to who I am and who I want to remain going forward. I won’t play for the crowd no matter how lucrative the pay is.
It is in that exact sentiment that I realize I never was “trash”, I never was less than or deserving of being ostracized. I told myself this many times and then forgot about it. Life moved on, tragedies occurred, joyful memories were made and the past dimed in the rearview mirror. Now, I have time to think about it more and believe their calling others names was a fumbling attempt at coping and I feel sorrow for the ones left behind, the ones still holding onto edited teenage glory that really wasn’t all that glorious to begin with. The good old days were never all good, they are just old and in need of a better view. An updated perspective coming from the eyes of an adult who has experienced life outside of that carefully curated and decisively biased bubble. That wasn’t real life, that was nostalgia brushing back your hair to wipe your tears and say, “There, there little one. The world is a scary place so just stay here with me and you’ll feel better.”
Staying stuck does not make anyone feel better. It just keeps you stuck. Come out into the sunshine and take a deep breath. Take in the scenery, the people, the exotic cuisine. I’ve been here for decades and can attest to the fact that being an adult is liberating. It’s not scary in the least. I promise.
© 2021-2022 L.A. Askew
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