You’re in for a treat tonight, guys – I wanted to share my updated 1st Chapter of my Memoir with you and ask your thoughts on it.
Here it is:
Chapter 1: The Mountain I carry
Afternoons were always humid in Nhulunbuy, so sweat beaded on our foreheads and made its way in rivers down our backs. Dad and I were in the back yard; mango trees swaying, a hint of frangipani in the air. Our back garden sported tropical plants arranged in complimenting colours and heights in gorgeous garden beds, all surrounded by a neatly mowed lawn of soft, green grass because Mom loved to garden and watered everything faithfully every evening.
Dad laid the paint-sprayer down and took of his mask. We both stood back; me mimicking Dad’s stance – legs apart with his arms folded – as we surveyed the bike Dad found at the tip (the town’s rubbish refuge where we all went to find ‘treasures’ like old furniture, golf clubs, car seats, motorbike helmets, broken toys etc) and had painted for me.
“Look at that, Chook. A nice, even coat and it looks brand new” Dad smiled over at me “Your old man isn’t just a dab hand with painting houses – I can make bikes look pretty spiffy, too!”
To be fair, Dad had created a pretty cool ‘ombre’ effect, starting with a deep magenta, fading into bright bubblegum and ending in a soft, pastel pinks as the colours washed across the bike’s frame.
But 13-year-old me wasn’t convinced. This stupid, dirty, old bike had mis-matching wheels and broken reflective lights on the pedals.
Half of me wanted to complain about the ‘tip bike’ – but having been polite for so much of my life and not wanting to seem ungrateful, the other half of me nodded and “mmm”ed with fake appreciation.
“Thanks, Dad. It’s great”.
Days later and there was a huge box in our living room. It was gift-wrapped and the gift tag had “For Jason” written on it in Dad’s familiar scrawl. Jay and I were both curious and Jay tore at the paper with abandon. The box housed a brand-new bike from the factory.
“Yessss!!! So Cool!” Jay exclaimed.
“You like it, son?” Dad asked, already knowing the answer (I noted that Dad never called me ‘daughter’). Mom came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishcloth “Of course he likes it, look at his cute little face”. My heart broke as I witnessed my parents gazing with pure adoration at my younger sibling. I’d never been looked at like that.
“Let’s take it for a spin, hey?” Dad helped Jay unbox his sparkling gift; pulling the shiny red bicycle out as Jay jumped about, clapping his hands in glee.
I stood there, frozen – not knowing where to put my arms. I never did in times like these, which was odd because ‘times like these’ were a regular occurrence in our family. You’d think I’d be used to them by now, but it never got easier. Inwardly, I felt the familiar build-up of rage while at the same time, recognised the dull ache of sorrow and shame in the hollow of my chest whenever things like this happened. Tears sprang to my eyes. Don’t you dare cry I willed myself. Not today. Today is about Jay, not you. Let it go, JD.
Dad rested his arm on my shoulder “I’ll put the training wheels on in a bit. Now you and your brother can have adventures together on your bikes! How good is that?” Dad was so pleased – as if this abomination was a gift to both of us. It hurt to have to smile and nod, but on autopilot, that’s what I did. It’s what I always did.
“Wow. Yeah, you’re right Dad”
Jay rang the shiny silver bell and did little loops of the living room, laughing. Dad went off to grab his latest camera as Mom carefully pushed Jay around the sofa – one hand balancing Jay and his bike and the other lovingly over Jay’s as he gripped the handlebars, pride filling her beautiful moon-shaped face. I knew what my role was – what it always would be; To join in and praise Jay. Today, it seemed too much to ask so instead, I disappeared into the shadows and ‘let Jay have his moment’.
“Stiff upper lip, babygirl” Dad had once warned when I was too little to understand the blatant – almost aggressive – favouritism in our family or to know to hide my feelings whenever it reared its ugly head. Now? Now I was a master at it. Without anyone noticing, I walked down the hallway, quietly shut my bedroom door, leaned against it, and let the tears flow.
My life began with my birth father leaving before I was born; so I started out by being abandoned. My tall, white, blue-eyed stepfather from the UK came into my life when I was 3 years old. He and my Mom have light skin. I’m a dark-skinned, afro-sporting, negro-nosed girl. You can imagine how well that went down. Eyebrows raised whenever the 3 of us went out. I felt immediately ashamed to be black; awkward in my darkened skin. Angry to have wiry hair that defied gravity. Embarrassed to be different. I ached just to be the same as everyone else.
I was one of a handful of black children at a predominantly white school in the small town of Nhulunbuy. Even so – when I look back, it was an idealistic childhood. I grew up in a sea-side village of 1000 people – mostly English, European or Aussie men married to European, Australian or Filipino women. Most of the men worked at the Bauxite mine while the others brought knowledge of other trades (plumbers, electricians, store owners, teachers, painters), creating a colourful array of people from all over the world making a comfortable, middle-class way through life on a beautiful island.
Everyone knew everyone. We were all close friends – particularly with everyone on the same street and would ‘block off’ the street entrance once a month and have street parties. The Filipino women would cook together, lining wobbly tables with dishes like “adobo”, “mango float”, “chicharron” (like pork crackling but…1000 times better), roasted pig on a spit, and rows of big rice cookers filled with fluffy white rice with a hint of coconut. The men – mostly British ex-pats – would gather together on lawn chairs, share cigarettes amongst themselves and throw each other cold beers from an array of ice-filled eski’s as all the children played handball, “elastics” (remember that game?) or rode bikes or skateboards up and down the cul-de-sac.
It was a time of innocence that I look back on with fondness. We weren’t aware of words like “locked doors”, “police reports”, “thieves” and words like “Stranger danger”, “taken advantage of” and “Rape/Murder” were particularly foreign to our ears. In Nhulunbuy, doors were always unlocked and often left wide open to let the afternoon breeze through. Streets were lined in palm trees and pretty tropical flowering plants. We had no tall buildings or even stop lights on our many intersections – “We don’t need them – just common sense and good manners works for us, love” Dad explained when I asked about the lack of them.
We all lived close enough to the beach – the township hugging the coastline – to go for daily afternoon dips (saltwater crocodiles were everywhere so we would ask Indigenous elders when the right time for a swim was, and they were never wrong), spend hours every day after school following dirt tracks to new adventures on our BMX’s and falling asleep every night to the sound of waves crashing with the scent of jasmine and magnolia lingering in the evening air.
Nonetheless, I was quick to discover that even in paradise, there are problems. For me, the biggest challenge I had to (continually) face was being the family ‘unfavourite’. Jay was clearly the favoured child and I grew up wondering what was so wrong with me that I was cast aside and treated as a second-class citizen by my parents.
Every afternoon for instance – as the school gates opened and students poured out, I would wave as Dad’s car turned out of the carpark – taking my brother home in airconditioned, chauffeured luxury while I had to walk or ride on my own. I look back on it now and shake my head.
If the school Nurse ever contacted my parents to tell them I was unwell, my parents wouldn’t come and collect me, they’d suggest ‘a little lay down and she’ll soon stop being dramatic’ but if Jay ever got even the slightest scratch from roughhousing in the playground, one of my parents would arrive breathless, sweep Jay up in their arms and carry him to the car with promises of ice cream and a new toy “for being so brave”.
I didn’t know what it felt like to be carried, cuddled or tucked in at night – these were reserved solely for my brother.
Birthdays were of course unevenly balanced; Jay’s birthday always a huge celebration – hundreds of balloons, presents that filled the living room and always a huge, custom-made birthday cake while mine seemed forced – as if my parents were ticking off the ‘shoulds’ (Cake, tick. Gift (always just the one where Jay would get at least 10), tick. A handful of my friends invited; Tick) of an obligatory birthday. Celebrating the day I was born seemed a hassle to them, not a joyous occasion like Jay’s. It cemented anxiety and fear within me that one day, they’d just give me away. I felt strongly that I wasn’t celebrated, cherished or wanted, I was a burden.
Christmas was the hardest for me. Jay and I would wake early, excited for what Santa had brought us and would race in our pyjamas to the living room – filled with gift-wrapped, glorious gifts. Oh, the amazing possibility of it all. I had wished all year for the red walkman/the pink boombox/the latest Boyz II Men CD/the little black dress I saw in the window and made Mom come in with me so I could try it on – feeling like a movie star in it – like I could take on the world and catch every boy’s eye. But I’d look, and almost every tag read “To Jason, with love from Santa xxxx”. I would pick up gift after gift – passing them to my excited younger sibling “Here you go, Jay” another one for you. In the end, I had separated the gifts into piles…Jay’s a tower of promise over a meter high while my 4 – or sometimes if I was really lucky – 5 gifts sat in a disappointing puddle.
“WOW! COOL! OMG THIS IS THE ONE I WANTED!” Jay’s cries would fill the living room, bouncing off the Christmas tree lights and tinsel that wrapped itself around almost everything in our living room. “Janet – did you see this?” and Jay would proudly hold up the latest collection of Action-man or He-man figurines.
“Wow Jay” the words felt like grains of sand in my mouth “They look awesome”
I’d bite my lip to keep the tears from forming, pushing the rising anger deep, deep down.
Every Christmas I told myself it would be different.
Every Christmas I was disappointed.
I’d watch with an unnatural smile plastered to my face, my arms rigid at my sides. I fought to press down the rising anger and swallowed back the resentment and the hurt that ran so deep I could feel it in the very marrow of my bones.
Mom and Dad would eventually appear, cuddle Jay close and ask “What gift did you like best? Oh that one! Oh haha, we thought you would” and I would stand there, like a dark, foreign stranger, smiling like an idiot. Good for you, Jay. What a great day for you.
Sometimes Mom would ask “Jan?” (I hate being called “Jan” by the way).
“Did you like your gifts, sweet?”
I would stare down at my pathetic pile.
“I haven’t opened them yet, but I’m sure I’ll love them” I beam a smile even though inside I’m screaming “How is this fair?”
Later (I’d purposefully wait until Jay was down to his last few gifts before I’d start opening mine so that I could at least pretend we’d had the same amount and had finished unwrapping at the same time) I’d look down at my opened gifts: bright plastic bangles, new hair bands, colourful socks or new sneakers for Netball practice. All practical gifts. Useful. Not magical or special. Nothing I’d wanted, strongly hinted at for months before Christmas or hoped for.
Gee, thanks “Santa”. I could do with more hair ties this year instead of the new cd I’d coveted for months. Cool.
Hurting beyond words, I’d stand and enfold my parents in a hug. Mom first, then Dad. I’d hold them close as my heart broke into a million pieces and whisper into both their ears “Thank you”.
“You’re welcome, babygirl” Dad would beam, pleased that Christmas had been a success and that all was right in the Daniels household.
Oh Dad…you were so wrong. It was all so very, very wrong.
I would quickly make my exit and spend the rest of the day in my room with my earphones in; my defence against the world. Mariah Carey blasted out “All I want for Christmas…is yooouuuu!”
All I want for Christmas…is to be seen as equal to my brother.
I grew up in my brother’s almighty shadow. Never first place – that was reserved for Jay and Jay alone – whether he deserved it or not.
What’s difficult about all this as I look back on my childhood was that I was pretty lucky. I grew up in paradise. The beaches were easy to access – so many of them only 20 minutes’ walk away. The pristine beaches seemed endless and were covered in white sand that was so clean and fresh it squeaked when stood on, washed over by with crystal clear waters. Familywise, my role as the ‘unfavourite’ wasn’t really that bad. I wasn’t abused. I wasn’t starved or locked up. I wasn’t beaten. I almost feel as though I have nothing to complain about and as though my pain wasn’t real because I was loved…it was just that my brother was loved so much more.
My parents were capable of praise and adoration, but they chose to lavish it only upon my younger sibling. That was a hard truth to swallow. Knowing my parents favoured my younger brother continually reinforced the negative way in which I viewed myself.
I was worthless. A nobody. A nothing.
Being the family unfavourite has made me a careful, quiet speaker. I’m polite and pleasing. It’s made me feel obliged to put everyone else before myself because I learnt that I wasn’t important. I’ve become an easy target for bullies and extremely attractive to narcissists and psychopaths. I have little to no self-esteem because I grew up believing there was nothing more to life than being the girl who grew up in the shadow of her perfect brother.
I was always going to be second. Runner-up. Never the winner, always the mascot. My parents thought I was “Okay-ish”, but never “Incredible” like Jay.
I don’t know if I’ll ever heal from that. I don’t know if anyone who experiences similar does.
This is the mountain I carry.
I’ve tried, believe me. I’ve tried to change my family’s dynamics so many times. I’ve tried in so many desperate ways to tip the scales so they are more balanced between my brother and I. It doesn’t work. It never works. Half of me wants to scream, throw my hands in the air and just give up. I not only want to give up, I’ve also wanted so many times to release all the shame, the pain and the profound loneliness of being the “burnt pancake”/1st child by engaging in as many illegal activities as I can. Crack cocaine honestly sounds like a great alternative to bearing the weight of being the family disappointment.
The other half of me, though? The other half shines brightly with hope that I am worth investing in. I looked outwards for the acceptance I desperately wanted and needed – to friends that love, accept and value me for who I am – just as I am. I don’t have to try to get their love and attention – it’s given freely – no strings attached. I might never truly belong in my biological family, but I know I belong with my husband, I’m genuinely loved by my friends…and that makes my ‘mountain carrying’ a lot easier.
If you’re the ‘unfavourite’ or the “Matilda” of your family, know there’s hope for you. You have immeasurable worth and even if your parents don’t see you as valuable, doesn’t mean that they’re right. There are people in the world that are going to (if they don’t already) think you’re the bee’s knees. They’ll see your awesome personality and they’ll celebrate it. Biological family might not be your tribe, but there are people out there that are. Keep looking and don’t give up.
You know what? Despite my tumultuous, painful upbringing, I’ll still stubbornly defend the silver lining. Either that…or get a hold of a large amount of “ice”.