My aunt died of cancer at the beginning of my senior year. It had been a second or third time with it, and the treatment had run long, with my mother constantly using buzz phrases like “the miracle factor” and how “positivity allows greater room for healing.” When she wasn’t carrying on about my aunt, my mother was obsessed with my sister’s at-best dubious lifestyle choices. This left her approximately no room in her consciousness for me.
Sophomore and junior year of high school I became the ignored family member, as my mother’s entanglement with her sister and her preferred daughter grew. Sophomore year was difficult – I’d had a big, complicated breakup, a suspension related to that breakup, and different friends of mine noticed my depression and attempted to flag my mother. Yet, while that year was rough, I did heal, unimpeded by my mother’s attention. By junior year I thrived in my mother’s neglect, easily sidestepping her micromanagement and control thanks to her own distraction. I had my first serious boyfriend. I brought grades up without tutors. I had friends, all nerdy creative outcasts. I understood what was happening with my aunt was very, very bad but I understood constantly dwelling on it did nothing.
My aunt having cancer I understood as serious and dangerous, but it was not an upsetting part of my life. Part of it came from being a teenager living in hellish situation: I could only focus on so much at a time, especially during those hellish moments when mother and sister turned attention back to me. There were a few times, with stress and sabotage having nowhere to go, they would corner me – even though it was far less than typical years for them. My aunt lived far away, almost four hundred miles; she wasn’t a big part of my life. That was part of why her cancer never became a Big Deal to me until the memorial service (she didn’t have a funeral) itself.
The other part was that I simply disliked my aunt. She was mean to me, at any given opportunity. When I was seven, she made a it a point to sit down next to me at a holiday dinner and monitor every bite I ate, editing all my food and making a celebration for everyone else a long-running humiliation for me. This activity was repeated by her nearly ever year, as though fat shaming me and encouraging others to treat me as less than a person might, in a single holiday session of elbows in my ribs until I had to run to the sole bathroom in my grandparents house and vomit, make me thin. She would bring presents for my sister, and then some yard sale crap for me, saying something about how she “didn’t want me to get jealous.” On my own birthday, the yard sale crap would continue – if she bothered at all. Since I’d never demonstrated jealous behavior about my sister, it was clearly a projection. My aunt had a very low opinion of fat girls, in part because like my grandmother, she used to be one.
When I was 12, she was having gall bladder surgery and had been transferred to teaching the sixth grade. She smirked down at me and said, “I’ll especially hate twelve year olds this year.” I knew she wasn’t kidding, and I knew my family including her would insist that I just needed to learn to take a joke – even if I was 12, even if she was especially a bully to me.
I was named after this aunt, forced to share an unsuitable middle name, but my sister was her obvious favorite. This aunt had two children of her own, older than us by 15-20 years. Over time my sister came to manipulate both her kids with the expertise of a South American dictator. One of these cousin’s wife persists in behaving as though she is connected to me even though she is not – another fat girl defying familiar expectations, and while her kindness has always been appreciated, she brought with it expectations that made me feel pressured for all the wrong reasons.
This aunt’s husband, however, was kind to me. I never fully understood why; maybe he just saw dozens of kids like me in his job as a high school band director or maybe he just liked to root for the underdog. We would take our clarinets to family gatherings, sneak off and he would tutor me in my technique. He and I both knew I never wanted to be a professional musician – but it didn’t negate his kids’ resentment of me, especially his daughter’s, since I suspect he gave me positive attention denied her.
This was, of course, compounded by my sister’s remarkable adroitness with manipulating negative feelings towards me, lying with just enough truth to qualify her for a job with Fox News.
I didn’t care about the attention from the uncle, though I liked him – I just wanted to get away from the room full of people that openly hated me, and get a break from being treated like wait stuff by his children, my uncle’s children, and my own family. In my teen naivete, I considered that my cousins might resent their father’s kindness to me, and dismissed it as too petty for adult children who were equal enough to speak honestly to parents. His daughter was near 30, beautiful, and successful – resenting a fat 14 year old girl made absolutely no sense. At the time I had no idea that almost no one in my family, or in adult life really, actually deals with feelings honestly, especially not when it comes to their parents.
There was one thing that my aunt did for me that was good. I don’t think she intended it to be a positive thing; in fact, I think it was the summation of her complaints about me, her unworthy namesake who reminded her too much of herself. “You can’t compare [my sister] and [me.] You can only contrast them.” It served as a reminder that my sister and I were indeed separate people and my sister’s choices would never be repeated in my life.
When my aunt died, this seeming awareness that I never imitated my sister’s choices died with her. When my sister got pregnant at 22 while still living with our parents, I had to awkwardly sidestep a lecture from my grandmother about how my trapping a man that way wouldn’t work for me and might not even be possible because of my size. Since I had not even been on a date in six months when she said this to me, it was especially bizarre. When I went away to college, there was shock and anger instead of the congratulations. Extended family didn’t really acknowledge my graduation at all – apparently doing it for my sister was enough, and since to their minds I was a mere shadow of her it didn’t matter. Even my father seemed to forget the years of pressure to go to college cultivated by my mother, trying to convince me to just go to massage school or become a paralegal instead of using the money I had earned, saved, and inherited over the first 18 years of my life to get higher education and real independence. Both he and my mother expressed an assumption I would flunk out, since my sister performed very poorly at both the private school and the state school she attended.
When my first semesters of college proved these assumptions dead wrong – no pregnancies, all dean’s lists – my mother acted like the straight As I got didn’t exist, and behaved as though I might be cheating on my coursework. In any phone call with her that wasn’t a monologue about every trivial detail of her life, or every trivial detail of my niece, she alternated between slut-shaming me and nagging me to hurry up and find a husband for grandchildren that I instinctively knew she would abuse.
All the sins of my sister were projected onto me, the way my grandmother would take beatings when her sister misbehaved. My mother assumed I was sleeping around and, on a surprise visit filled with aggression and need for control, said so to two of my male dorm mates. My dorm mates knew me. At that time I didn’t say a word against my mother, so their conclusions were their own. They were not \sympathetic to her constant derogatory manipulations like my cousins were, and made it pretty clear I was none of the things she was calling me. I don’t know what they said, but my mother told me she found them “disrespectful,” suggesting they called her out on the way she talked about her daughter.
My actual behavior didn’t matter. She imagined me a certain way, and despite a void of evidence in my behavior or results,she was determined that I was malicious, manipulative, and promiscuous.
I can only imagine how it would be if my mother’s sister had lived to see me get through college. I don’t think I’d have bit my tongue around her as I got older. As a kindness to my mother in her grief, I had my full name printed on my graduation announcements, even though it cost me more and I always hated my middle name. But my aunt, who was a community pillar, was not that for me.
I don’t want to bear the brunt of her name. I’m a good person who left behind the life of abuse my aunt contributed to. She doesn’t deserve to have me carry her legacy. Let someone else take the name, someone who has reason to celebrate her – she made a positive difference to a great number of people, even as she made a deeply negative impact on my own life.
My first name, Diana, is a sort of accident: my mother had ruled out Rosemary or Rose Marie after meeting my father’s cousins of those names. It’s just as well, with a wife named Marie. Diana is an expansive Goddess: in one aspect an independent hunter, in another a mother, in another an arbiter of wisdom, and ultimately one who frees the abused from slavery. Diana is an honor I bear with joy, and not just because she takes pleasure in it being a cosmic fuck you to someone she views as undeserving of the child in me she was given.
My last name is the name of people who had their lives taken away, and reclaimed them with blood, tears, and toil. My surname is the name of people escaping Krakau, it is the third name read off the list in the movie Schindler’s list, it is the name of the freedom fighters that somehow survived the uprising of the Polish Underground. Whatever the failures of my father’s parents – and they were considerable – these damaged ancestors are part of my power, and have given me the gift of just not caring that I might fail, because the fight alone is what matters.
This leaves me the middle as my missing piece. I have an idea, one that honors my relationship with plants, my love of herbs, my love of the rooted mystic. I will be making a legal name change soon – to disavow those who did not love me as a child should be loved, but also to honor the love I was given, from the land itself.