by Elizabeth Stephens
An Uneasy Alliance in a Sinking Boat
Although Adrian and I were physically in the same boat, we were kept worlds apart, yet we existed in parallel universes. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other and Selma kept the rivalry between us alive by rewarding tattle telling. I never knew what Adrian was thinking at those times and when I hear her version of what we both went through, it amazes me that we were in that same sinking boat but did not work together more.
On rare occasions Adrian and I would work together to protect each other from Selma’s relentless attacks. While we were watching television on our carpet pieces, we’d often fall asleep after 11 or 12p.m. If one of us heard her approaching, we’d wake up the other one so that we wouldn’t get caught by Selma. If we did get caught, she became vindictive and would say, “There must be something wrong with you two, if you can’t stay awake.”
You Want to be a What? An Artist! Better to be a Clerical Worker!
When Adrian was in the 12th grade she wrote an essay about what she wanted to be when she grew up~ an artist. Selma got wind of that and made her change it to a clerical worker. Yes, that’s right. Would someone who loves you and is looking out for you want your crowning achievement to be a clerical worker? Nothing against being a clerical worker, if that is your calling.
When it was my turn, Selma forewarned and instructed me precisely how my essay was to read. “When I grow up I want to be a good citizen.”
In school I got very high marks in art. Yet I was sternly rebuked and told in no uncertain terms that Adrian was the artist and let her be the artist. At the time I liked working with clay and painting. I made Selma a Dracula figure out of paper Mache. It looked like the Count Dracula on Sesame Street series. It was very exquisite. When looking back on that choice that might have been a message I was subconsciously sending her, but again maybe I could not realize it. After I moved out, I asked for it back, but she gave me some excuse that she couldn’t locate it. It probably ended up in the trash.
Adrian was quite talented as well. Adrian would carve faces on the side of puzzle boxes with scissors. Good faces too. However, as soon as Selma found out, Adrian was ridiculed. Even recently I asked Adrian if she still did any carving. Adrian said Selma told her I was the artist in the family. Again, this was Selma in action doing the double duty of pitting one against the other, or dividing to keep conquering.
Adrian once remembered Selma drove us to the movies and stopped at a store. Adrian was watching some people intently and Selma said to her, “Something’s wrong with you for looking at other people!” This was another typical Selma comment.
A Child’s Unrequited Affection and Kitsel the Cat
After David and Selma came back from a weekend in Palm Springs, Adrian was walking by David and Selma’s bedroom and she walked up to David and kissed him. She couldn’t remember what Selma said at the time, but later Adrian was accused of kissing up to David. A day later, Adrian had scratches on her neck where Selma was washing her hair from holding her head underwater. We had to deal with these kinds of treatment and accusations frequently as backlash.
There were three layers of children, the oldest and youngest were Selma’s and the ones in-between, that would be us, we were foreigners and so treated. The other children were not allowed to talk to us. Even when the cat would make its way in our room and Selma would discover it, she would remove it from us as if it would be defiled if we touched it. The cat’s name was Kitsel-the Jewish word for cat or sometimes called Sputnik after the Russian space program. The cat liked us and would keep coming back in our room for we paid attention to him and gave him lots of love.
The first book I owned was when I was 12 years old. The title is ‘Beautiful Joe’ by Marshall Saunders. It is about an abused dog’s life. Is there some irony here? I do not know why it was given, or really by whom, but according to Selma, she was behind every good thing and everyone else was the bad guy. (I do not remember Adrian ever owning a book of her own.)
Selma would have different types of behavior if either one of us did anything like breath or look at something. She would yell at one and be as nice as pie to the other. Another tactic would be for Selma to stand at the door to our room and yell at us for about forty-five minutes, then walk away, think up something else, come back, go away, and come back again. We always dreaded her reappearances.
As for any other relationship between Adrian and me, it was almost non-existent. Since we were not allowed to speak to one other, or to do normal sibling things, it was like living in a prison where both cell mates had to follow strict rules. Our every moment and all our movements were choreographed by Selma. To stir up trouble, Selma would try to turn us against each other from time to time. As a young child, I perceived that I had no power over my circumstances and Selma consistently enforced that perception. We were really quite afraid of her.
Brick Walls and Stuttering
Selma would verbally assault us with words that cut through us like a well sharpened kitchen knife. I could never get my point across. I think that’s why I stuttered. For years I stuttered terribly because of my life at home. Most people have had the experience of trying hard to communicate to a brick wall that was my whole life. That is also why I spoke as little as possible; I just couldn’t get the words out. Sometimes I didn’t even want to try, as Selma took too much energy out of me. I grew increasingly dissatisfied in my teen years and asked myself, “How can this happen in middle class America?”
The older I got the more I started to piece together the larger picture and things weren’t adding up. Something did not smell right. Since every aspect of our existence was programmed by Selma, things started to get under my skin. From time to time Selma would accuse us of some wrong doing, or she would manufacture something, which would give her the option of bringing up past occurrences. More and more it seemed we were always doing something wrong, the worst was smiling or appearing to have fun. Walking was attacked and thinking as well. I really can’t remember Adrian ever doing much of anything; it was mainly me that was attacked. It seemed I was always the one in trouble
How About a Cigarette?
Selma had the bright idea that she would get me to smoke, perhaps thinking I would eventually die of cancer. She would buy me cigarettes and tell me how cool they looked and how they would make me feel special. I could have as many as I wanted. I would light up, but would never inhale. It was interesting to me that she never tried this with Adrian. I have never asked my sister what she thought about this until years later, but then there were so many things that were not spoken about. Adrian said she thought I had tried smoking already, but she did not know it was Selma’s idea. Selma finally gave up on getting me hooked. (Although Selma did not smoke herself, David smoked like a fiend and many years later Selma died of second hand smoke.)
Selma had a way of pitting us against each other and invented means to make us mad at one another to keep us at odds with one another. On one particular occasion, Selma got very mad at me after Adrian told her, “Lizzy said she hates you.” Although I never said that, Selma made me apologize to her. I later found out that Selma had promised Adrian a doll for tattling on me, so Adrian had fabricated the statement that I hated Selma and even after all that Adrian never got the doll.
Mind Games, Nagging and Doublespeak
Later when I read Mommy Dearest, the biography of an actress, Joan Crawford and she seemed to have spells where she went crazy much like Selma. It also reminds me of Saul in the Bible when an evil spirit came upon him. (Selma is the Biblical female form of Samuel which was also fascinating to me.) Selma was consistently off when it came to dealing with Adrian and I being, David’s ‘other’ children.
Selma loved to nag and to hear herself talk, in fact that was her specialty. Selma also would talk us to death and tell us of all her concerns for us as to how she was always looking out for us and our welfare. She would talk then walk out of the room and then think of something else to say then come back and talk some more. This tactic was repeated almost daily. We were being worn down from our early childhood. This was how she would wear a person down to their stubs. She would adeptly bring up the past to drive home her point. The next time you did anything wrong, all your faults would be paraded in front of you. When she was finished with you all you wanted to do was crawl up in a small ball and die. She would nag David as well. I remember her going off on him for getting the wrong paint brush size. On and one she went, how could you have gotten the wrong size.
The worst aspects were these mind games that Selma played. When I would relate some of these events to normal people they would not believe me, I stopped trying. Adrian and I were trained this way from our youth and grew up under these practices. But the thing that irked me the most was that Selma’s children were treated normally in the same household, it was the double standard.
At one time I was sitting waiting for Selma and across the way was a candy store. I saw a mother and her daughter entering the store and they seemed so happy together. I so badly wished to trade places. I then saw an Outer Limits episode, an old sci-fi series and very scary. It was a story of a man running from the police and he ran in a museum and saw a picture of a fisherman in a small boat in the middle of a lake. The fugitive wished himself into the picture and then he was screaming because he could not get out. Then I thought better of my wishing situations.
When the family would go away for a few days, that was nice, but when took an extended vacation for a few weeks, I was ecstatic! One time I overheard them practicing a foreign language, and found out they were going to Europe and were even taking their younger children. This time it would be different. Selma had an African American maid named Halestine. She would be our watcher. She liked us and would talk to us. She even gave me a sip of her Brandy; it tasted awful.