“Sketching Roots” is an ongoing series featuring family memories and all of the fun awkwardness that that implies.
I have an aunt who thinks appearance is everything. You should look nice, have nice things, “make a good impression” and so on. Back when I would do family stuff, she would constantly criticize my appearance. She meant well. For a long time, I was visibly not doing so great, so she intended her feedback to be constructive. Even when I’m doing well, though, I don’t really care about appearance. I learned to just politely nod my ahead when she was talking, wait it out. She made pretty good lemon squares, so at get-togethers I would just eat a bunch of lemon squares in what I silently deemed a fair exchange for putting up with her crap.
The bigger problem was that her house was so “nice” that just being inside of it made me physically uncomfortable. Everything was expensive and new. And everything was so shiny that you couldn’t touch any object without leaving a fingerprint behind. She’d notice it, too. Some kind of radar in her brain would pick up on it…she would glare at any fingerprint she came across. She always found them, spent the next few minutes polishing them away.
I walked around her house feeling tense and miserable. I hated the place.
Also, she had this really high-end carpet. It was fluffy and tall and white. Any time I visited, I would stare at my feet and imagine I was riding around on some kind of gigantic, exotic cat.
It was important to her that the carpet remain flawless and upright at all times. She needed it fluffy. I don’t know why. When she had people over, she could never stop scanning the carpet with her eyes, endlessly seeking out any flaw or disturbance.
One time we had a small family gathering at her place. She served us the lemon squares and I was terrified the whole time I was eating…I just knew a crumb would fall from my plate and she would leap across the room, catch it mid-air, then glare at me the rest of the night. I ate slowly, surgically and it went okay.
After that, everyone left for the kitchen, for coffee…as I was walking out of the room, I looked back…the aunt thought we were all gone, so she dropped to all fours and started fluffing the carpet. Our feet had left indentations in the softness and she was working it over, making sure the carpet was evenly fluffed.
The whole set up there really haunted me. I felt unsettled by the carpet and all of the expensive things. I don’t go there anymore.
I have a cousin, same age as me. Like me, he struggled socially when we were growing up. Our issues were a little different. He had low self-esteem and struggled with a classic sort of shyness. I was having inexplicable battles with social pragmatics…stuff that wouldn’t have a name until later in life.
When we were in junior high, we would talk once or twice a year at family get-togethers and compare war stories…we were both lonely and anxious and trying to find some way to navigate the social world.
I was getting pretty out of my head and started to develop theories about group psychology and non-verbal language and identity formation. I was so stressed about people that my mind was going full anthropological in an effort to deal with it all.
The stuff I was saying…it made him uncomfortable, he didn’t want to hear it. We were in a similar place at that time, but he stopped talking with me about life. He said he just wanted girls to like him and tuned out my rambling.
Around that time, he went through this change. He went from awkward and shy and inward to social and extroverted and athletic. He lost a lot of weight and, by the time he was in high school, started running weird distances. He started talking about pain the way some people talk about religion. He would brag about his ability to survive, even enjoy, seemingly-endless leg cramps. He would brag about intense food deprivation and his ability to subsist on nothing more than egg whites and magic powders that came in barrel-sized plastic containers.
He took me to a powder store one time, and it was filled with oddly-proportioned muscle-shaped humans. They looked like weight-lifting infants, blown up to adult size. I never wanted to go back to the powder store. That was a dark scene.
When I was having trouble with depression after college, cousin told me that I needed to start running and subsisting on the egg whites and powders. He would literally break into my apartment, give me pep talks. He would leave me with pamphlets and books and videos about extreme exercise.
Again, his efforts made me think of of religion…of that need to absorb into something bigger; the ecstasy of being dissolved, destroyed by leaping up, out of the self.
I just listened warily and waited it out and eventually we drifted apart. One time he asked for all of his books and pamphlets and videos back, but I had donated them to the local library.
That was my bad. We haven’t spoken since that happened.