Probably my most defining life memory (insofar as our topic today) happened when I was between four and five. I remember a lot of screaming and shouting. That was nothing unusual. Then the sounds of fists hitting home; again nothing unusual. But then I realised the target wasn’t my brother or sister and that it was a lot louder than normal. My father shouted at the top of his lungs for me and my sister to go to where they were. We got there to see my parents were standing in the entryway to the house arguing. My mother was dressed up more than usual; had her fur coat on and keys in her hand. She was telling my father she wanted a divorce. My father had found out because the lawyer she had met in secret had written a letter that he was holding in his hand while shouting “how much is this nonsense going to cost me”.
She then said “I am leaving you Fernando I have had enough.” She went to turn to the door while he held her back trying to take the keys out of her hands. When he didn’t manage it because she had gotten the keys in the door; he threw her to the ground and started beating her wildly. He screamed that she had no right to leave her children; that she wouldn’t get outside the door because he would not allow it, and that she should be ashamed of herself. What kind of mother leaves her children behind? How would she pay for anything because he wasn’t going to give her a penny? She had no right to leave because she belonged with her children. My sister and I stood there and watched this. My father repeated several times that she belonged with her children, that she belonged in the house. Shortly after that my father (a respected doctor in a small town) got a psychiatrist to certify her mentally ill and my mother spent most of the next 20 years sedated to one degree or another.
What crystallised in my mind while I watched and listened that day – aside from the shame of standing there and doing nothing – which happened more frequently than not because doing something usually made it worse – was that I most certainly did not want to belong in that family. I did not want to belong with my parents and if I wanted to get away from them I needed to be financially independent. That was what I was thinking about at the age of four. I don’t want to belong here. I don’t belong here. How do I get away from here? I wasn’t sure where I might actually belong but I didn’t want it to be there. This distance I felt in my home life spread to pretty much all relationships when I was a child because no one outside of the house could ever know the truth about what happened inside it.
All of us had very clear the difference between private and public and that it was forbidden to let the outside public know the truth of the private. Is it possible to develop a genuine sense of belonging with other people if they don’t know the truth about who you are? And people really didn’t know because after that day by the door my father never hit us in places that would leave visible marks again. So – while it may sound histrionic or overly dramatic – I hid a double life from everyone for decades. My family members never knew my only objective in life was to get away from my father and no one else had any awareness of this either. It did seep into things though; because for me – the Spanish daughter of a Danish woman living in the USA – I rejected anything that meant permanence in that small town.
An example of this was my relationship with my fourth grade teacher. In the fourth grade I was regularly docked points on spelling tests because I would use the English spelling rather than the American one; colour, humour, flavour and realise. When I argued with Mrs Johnson that it was unfair because the language was English and Collins dictionary had the correct spelling she said I was living in America and needed to get used to doing things like Americans. From my perspective that was categorically unfair and I said so, saying I had no intention of staying in the USA any longer than necessary. She looked bemused then but didn’t say much. Then; shortly before parent teacher conferences I was docked points on another test in class because I didn’t know how to correctly answer the question “what your mother serves for dessert at thanksgiving.” I didn’t have a clue because in my house we didn’t celebrate thanksgiving. We were half Spanish half Danish and to be honest didn’t really celebrate either culture’s traditions. My parents were immigrants to a country whose culture they didn’t really understand; and generally spoke about the fact that Americans don’t have any genuine culture because they are all mixed up. Also, as many immigrants do they really mostly only knew other immigrants socially.
The teacher took advantage of the conference to discuss with them her concern that I wasn’t accepting American customs. She apparently convinced them that the lack of celebrating Thanksgiving was one of the reasons I never fit in with the other kids: I was too different. If they wanted to show they belonged in America then we needed to behave like Americans. Never mind the fact that most of the other kids in my class came from other European immigrant backgrounds because they were doing it right by celebrating Thanksgiving. I have always hated that holiday as a hypocritical white wash of history, and didn’t feel thankful in the least for my situation at the time. But the Midwestern matron imposed her understanding of what was required of my parents for us to belong in Midwestern society and they were so genuinely concerned to fit in (my father was applying for citizenship) that we ate the bloody thanksgiving dinner every year we were in the states after that; and my father started watching American football so my brother could understand what the boys in his class were on about.
The funny thing is that woman’s insistence that we conform to her cultural expectations was one of the first things to make me strongly reject Americanism. Up until then I had focused my thoughts primarily on getting away from my father. But the following summer I was sent to stay with my aunt and there I experienced life in Madrid doing things normal kids in Madrid do, and eating normal food etc – and at the end of that summer I remember my aunt telling other people “this one belongs with us” and I was happy for it because I knew I most certainly didn’t belong in the USA.
On the flip side in Madrid for many years I was “punished” in different groups for not being genuinely «Spanish» enough for their standards.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that no one belongs anywhere but where they choose; but because there will always be others that don’t think you belong (because for tastes there are 1000 colours in the rainbow) end of the day you just have to accept people’s rejection or accept yourself and the fact that no one is a perfect fit anywhere.