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Buck up, Penelope!: an essay for Penelope Trunk

I want a big sister like Penelope Trunk.  Or maybe I want to be a big sister like Penelope Trunk would be, if she were my big sister.

I feel like I’m pretty useless to my sisters and brother.  I feel like when I should’ve been getting to know them, I was busy getting away from them.

But we are still really happy and like each other, see?

This is me, my sibs, and Child. We are at a funeral which is sad, even though we don't look sad.

But something I’m learning as I grow older and and more open to the vigors of youth and the wisdom of the aged, being somewhere in the middle myself, is that sometimes, little sisters have to pretend they’re big sisters and provide insight.

One of my sisters did this recently by sending me piles of info and links to webinars about starting a nonprofit, which is something I’m working on now, and the field in which she’s in her second year as an intern.

It’s easy to forget that little sisters are people in addition to being annoying brats, even though my sisters were never especially bratty and have not been annoying in some years.

I think this is true for children and mothers, too.  Sometimes, instead of thinking about Child as a whole person, I think of her as an exhausting accessory.  That is wrong, and I know it.  I also know that I have done and will do a lot of wrong things as a parent, partner, sister, daughter, friend, cousin, niece, employee, businessperson.

So Penelope is having a rough patch.  A seriously rough patch.  A rough patch that if any of my siblings were in, I would be in their faces, imploring them to do something differently.

I think anybody would want to help Penelope out of her rough patch.

Penelope, are you listening?

My parents love me.  They are (and were) not always perfect parents.   They did not hit me too often or think I was a psychopath, but they did tell me–without saying with words–that I am of lesser consequence than other people, and that I probably shouldn’t get too attached to any plans I make or ideas I have because they’ll probably be wrong or bad.

For example, while repeating “actions speak louder than words,” my parents affirmed extremely poor behavior by grown ups who were supposed to love and encourage me back when I was a teenager.

That event really fucked with my self perception and my ideas.  I think I’ve worked through it in some good ways, and it’s an event for which I am now mostly grateful. I’m working on a novel about it–or inspired by it.

The short version of the story is that when I was 16, I wanted to start a drama team at church.  My folks sent me to a meeting with the Worship Commission on my own because I told them I didn’t need them there.  I told them that because I thought that was what they needed me to say.  They had two small children, my dad was a business owner, and I was very competent for a 16-year-old.  But I was still a 16-year-old.

What I hope I do better than my parents did is to identify when Child is not capable of doing something, even if she thinks she is, and to be there to catch her if she falls–not to do it for her, but to provide appropriate input and/or intervention if it is necessary.

After the pastor left the Worship Commission meeting, about half way through, one of the committee members said things that made me cry.  As a grown up, I believe that these things were probably sane and reasonable, but I do not believe that they were encouraging or designed to edify a person who had a pile of energy and enthusiasm and just wanted to be involved.  Of course, I cried and blubbered in the meeting and then I gave up on that church.

My parents kept going to it, though.  They told me it was because my other siblings were very happy there and they couldn’t justify moving the whole family because I was miserable, even though they said with words that they thought it was horrible that I was treated so badly.

At the time, I expressed understanding because I knew I had to.  But that was hard. And I was extremely angry.  In fact, I still feel like my siblings’ success and happiness are more important to my parents than mine is.

Anyhow, I was sixteen and I could drive, so I went to a different church not too long after that.

Not too long after that, I gave up on church all together.  It was after reading Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, which I would recommend for any adolescent.  It’s not about sexy bondage, it’s about spiritual, personal, philosophical bondage, about the quest for self.  It is a beautiful book.

My point, Penelope, is that parents fuck up.

Once we become parents ourselves, whether or not the timing or circumstances are ideal, we have to try not to fuck up.

Staying in a house with a man who hurts you is fucking up.

What will hurt your kids more: having to adapt to change, or watching you be hurt by someone who claims to love you?

I guess there’s no sure answer to that, but the best thing a parent can give a kid–and a thing I wish I got from my folks–is the knowledge that they are whole people who deserve love and happiness.  Neither of my folks believed this about themselves, which is why they couldn’t show me.  But we do.  We all do.

I am still shocked when I have success, even though I run around chasing it pretty constantly.

Maybe you can identify with that.  I suspect you can.

So buck up, Penelope.  Get an apartment and hire tutors to give your kids reading and math and logic and geography.  Get your work done and realize your potential.  Spend time alone and think about yourself, just yourself, and not about how you can propel a larger construct.  Cry.  Sleep.  Read a book for pleasure.

Even though I don’t really know you, Penelope, I admire you.  I think you’re really smart and I like the way you write.  I tell people to read your blog.  I find you to be inspiring.  You deserve to realize your potential.

You are a whole person, Penelope.  And you deserve love and happiness.

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