I grew up afraid of asking questions, afraid of being curious. It still affects the way I live. Any time I crossed that line as a kid I was derailed by my anxious mother and grandmother, who we called Gran, to not question outside the comfort zone. So I didn’t. And I learned to block out the voice that asked questions and still find it hard to listen to it as it fades into the background. Our cabinets were full of linden flower tea which made the kitchen smell like pollen. I could see the dreamers in both of them as they would openly express regrets and rare liberal beliefs that were unheard of in that city. I knew from a young age I didn’t want to live a life of regrets even if their voices haunting my head warned me otherwise.
Every day was summer where I’m from, but on real summer days I would spend them in the yard with Gran as she tended to her perennials and prized gardenia bush she planted when it was a tiny little thing. Her green thumb was magical and one of her gifts my mother and I wished we had inherited. Sitting on the ground I would pick mayweeds while my long dark hair that I wasn’t allowed to cut would brush against the grass. I would pretend to be in the countryside or in a forest calling corners like the witches of yore. Or a prima ballerina that was as graceful and swan-like ignoring the fact that it wasn’t graceful in the slightest. My mom and Gran encouraged me to read books. After picking seeds from flowers so more could be planted I would lie under the blue skies and read about orphan girls in their boarding schools and gardens. More than anything I wanted to be them.
There were times when Gran would suddenly stop and turn pale shaking with breathlessness. She would sit for a minute with her gloves full of soil. I knew to run to the kitchen, make some linden flower tea with a piece of chocolate on the side and a tiny blue pill. Her hands would shake while the tea cup ringed against the saucer. After a bit she seemed to get her color back with her cheeks still a bit flushed matching the color of our pink perennials. She would always just comment she was nervous during these episodes and when asked why she simply did not know. That was always her answer.
My neighbors were a family of sisters. They would come outside and we would clumsily toss a volleyball over the gray, short fence while the grownups would gossip and comment on grownup things. They would go inside and that was it. I wasn’t allowed over the fence or over across anyone else’s without my mother or Gran. The thoughts of the dangers of the outside world were too much for them to think about. So as many only children do, I learned to accept loneliness and even embrace it.
On these long summer vacation days I would finally go back inside smelling like sun as my mother would come home from work. She always looked young and beautiful and fresh even at the end of a workday, at least to me. She longed for family life. Real family life. With a husband, a house, and more children. It was a constant fight whenever a topic like this was brought up because my grandmother was opposed to my mother moving on with her life and finding someone. But despite my mother’s longing, it never felt genuine, just something she felt she needed to do because that’s what was expected of a standard life. The truth was she wanted to get away and have a different life. One filled with a type of happiness that she didn’t feel she had and marriage was probably the answer in her mind.
My mom would yell at Gran every so often reminding her that because of her she never had the career she wanted and never was able to invite any sort of real change. Gran would just to cry and come to me saying how badly my mother treats her asking over and over how could she not love her own mother. But all I kept thinking of was why my mom let her life slip away from being her own. She was a people pleaser as I already knew I was and so was Gran who had the same issues with her own mother and was raised as sheltered and barred from decision making as we were.
These nights were harder than most. The panic attacks would set in on them both. All of it was unpleasant yet normal. Gran would continue to obsess over these fights for hours and call whoever would listen to complain to, meanwhile my mother would pick at her fingernail beds until they bled in silence in another room drinking linden flower tea. I would isolate myself and sometimes go into Gran’s room and try on her strings of faux pearls, lipstick and smell her face creams. Once I role played as a mistress of a manor using crayons as cigarettes speaking in a British accent. Gran walked in and laughed then showed my mother and she laughed. The night was pure again. I ran the show and entertainment of keeping their minds off these worries and quarrels.
On the weekends my great aunts would visit or we would visit them. My mother is also an only child so this was the closest family we had. Always surrounded by adults, it became easy for me to relate to them so much more than other children my age. They conversed openly in front of me and always were very blunt in giving their lessons of the world. One summer in particular there was a wedding coming up for one of my cousins which I was to be a junior bridesmaid for the ceremony. There were dress fittings and constant meetings with the aunts leading up to celebration. While having my dress fitted I was silent and admiring the mirror while the seamstress examined the fit. My mother notices the sleeves too tight and leaving a rash on my shoulders. “Why didn’t you say this was too tight?” I knew they were, but I didn’t question. I loved the excitement not because of the wedding itself, but the production of beauty as we collected fabric samples and my mother put together arrangements. Her creativity was one to envy. In the darkness of the evenings with my half sewn dress and spinning under the spotlight shining from the night sky while the strings and ribbons were fringed and loose, my mother yelled for me to go back inside and take it off. I didn’t want the summer to end. I never wanted summers to end, but this one in particular was harder to picture its last sunset before the new school year.
The morning of the wedding I was the last to wake up and everyone in the house was far ahead in taking action and getting ready. I sat there basking in the excitement and watching them run around in robes and curlers. But it was also a bit melancholy at the thought that this was it. The excitement that was filled with fantasy, stardust and lace had come to an end after tonight. While getting up I noticed a strange brownish-maroon stain on my feet. As I looked through the sheets there seemed to be a trail of what seemed like blood all along the bed. I yelled for my mom who looked at the bed and then we both looked down at my stained pajama pants and she said “You got your period.”
My mother called in Gran to tell her the news. They asked me if I knew what this meant and Gran went on to exclaim that I was now a woman. They kept repeating how now I had to take care of myself and my ways of carelessness needed to change as young ladies needed to be clean, tidy, and healthy. Clean, tidy, and healthy. Clean, tidy, and healthy. Their voices began to fade into the distance as I took all this in and yet didn’t. There was blood gushing out of body and they were proud somehow. I hugged my knees as my vision blurred and felt transparent as my mother told me she needed to show me how to stay sanitary during the month when this sin of blood came back. I got up, followed her to the bathroom, but my vision and balance defied me.
I woke up on the bathroom floor to my mother calling 911 and splashing my face with water. Gran stuck to the doorway, tissue in hand in tears looking at me with a grief as if I was slipping away. I was able to sit up on the floor just fine as the rescue came in. They were 2 men and I wasn’t used to being around strange men especially not at home. They asked questions about my history and new menstruation cycle and if this had happened before. Gran, from her own experienced knowledge, explained it was probably the nerves that caused the fainting and not the hemorrhaging. It was my first panic attack. After some more uncomfortable advice on how to take care of myself from these men who would never come to know this feeling or fate, they were gone. Gran made me some linden flower tea. She and my mother had some too. We were all rattling inside and there was too much to do within the next few hours, but for a moment we all sat drinking this tea for the same reason.
I barely remember the rest of that day let alone the wedding. Family congratulated me on “this new stage in life,” whatever that meant. They all had the same grin on their face that felt patronizing and invasive. Everyone knew and I had no say in the matter. No control. No control over my own body and mind. I didn’t want to be a woman and certainly didn’t want to be seen as one. I wasn’t ready to let go of my girlhood and everything that came with it. I didn’t want to become my mother and grandmother, living in fear of living and giving into the roles in pretense like they did only to fall back into the graces of their own regret and defeat. I had to break the cycle. But lots would change after that wedding, after that the new school year began. It was the last of my summers of solitude that would blend in with so many before it. Looking back it was in these days that I learned who I wanted to be and who I didn’t. It was in these days I would develop an imagination that I still turn to to escape the world of adulthood and build it too. The panic attacks and anxiety became part of my life just like were part of my mother and grandmother’s, but I have tried my best not to let them haunt my existence. I try to live the way that girl hiding in the yard within the weeds of her tangled mind would have wanted me to live because she taught me that you are your own best company.