How many times, growing up, did I tell myself to keep my mouth shut, stay away from my siblings and hide in my bedroom? Not enough, for almost daily I got myself in trouble for responding to the hurtful words flung by my siblings with ones of my own. If my sister announced that she hated me, I hated her worse. When she threw her dirty clothes on my side of the room, I’d bury them under her bed. If she refused to do chores, I’d report her. Promptly.
Our dislike of one another was fomented by my mother. From the time my sister was born, my mother set us apart. My brother’s position in my mother’s eyes was well solidified by that time. Because my brother was smart and not athletic, he garnered my dad’s disapproval for anything and everything he did. My mother became my brother’s champion and protector.
Perhaps she felt that I didn’t need her protection and championing, or maybe she had determined that I was a hopeless cause at an early age., but she never, ever spoke up for me. In fact, when my dad returned from work, my mother would recite a list of my faults deserving of punishment and then command that he shake me or beat me until she was satisfied.
My sister was born while my mother was in the midst of a deep depression. Since she was unable to care for the infant, I had to do it. As a “unloved” seven-year-old, I resented being in that position.
When my sister developed petit mal seizures, my sister now became my mother’s primary focus. Mother still protected my brother from our father’s ire and disappointment, but my sister was elevated to princess status. She not only could do no wrong, she only declared it. She’d set up false situations and then report to our mom that I had kicked her, slapped her, beaten her. After a while, I decided that if I was going to be accused of something I hadn’t done, then I might as well do it.
It was no wonder that we had no relationship to speak of.
When I was off in college my brother was one year ahead of me at the same college. My sister was now in middle school, getting herself suspended for dealing drugs on campus and other illegal activities. While brilliant, she refused to complete work or turn in what she had finished. Where I would have been beaten for failing classes, my mother excused it due to seizures and other such illnesses that I could not see or understand.
However, one summer I thought that if I made an effort, I could turn dislike into an amicable relationship. I took my sister for long drives in the country. We’d eat picnic lunches in the back of the car while watching water birds play. I’d take her to movies and out to lunch. Sometimes to the mall where I’d use my limited resources to buy her an article of clothing that wasn’t revealing.
My intentions were good, but changed nothing. Our relationship is still rocky to this day.
We grew up poor. My mother was an excellent seamstress and sewed much of my clothes. Her choice of styles was old-fashioned and conservative. I appreciated the skirts and matching vests that she made me, but no one else in the mid-1960s wore such things. I was not a popular kid, and my clothes solidified that status.
We moved to California at the end of my freshman year. I saw the move as a fresh start in a new school. I knew I’d never be one of the popular kids, but I hoped I could at least have a friend or two. My problems followed me. I didn’t dress like anyone else. My saving grace was that I was an excellent student. My teachers generally liked me, if they even knew I was in the room.
After the end of sophomore year, my parents bought a house up the hill and across a major highway. It was in a different school district so I had to switch schools. I cried every day on the bus to and fro. Meanwhile my mother was trying to convince the old district that only they could meet my academic needs. I’m willing to bet that she also told them I was severely depressed. I was. But if she hadn’t done that, I would have adapted.
The new high school wasn’t as academically challenging, the classes were smaller and the campus newer. Because I had enrolled late, I didn’t get the same classes I would have had at the other school, but the ones I did have were all acceptable for college.
My mom’s intentions were good. She was trying to help me, something that I appreciated deeply.
The thing is good intentions aren’t always what we need.
My sister didn’t benefit from my good intentions. In fact, thirty years later she regaled me with how horrible I had treated her and how boring I had been. What I had seen as a chance to pull her away from drugs and the lifestyle she had chosen, she saw as an attempt to remake her into a little me. And no way did she want to be me.
When my mother paid attention to my distress and chose to act, her intentions were good. She saw herself helping her shy, recluse of a daughter. The homely one, the lonely one. By getting the transfer to the old school, perhaps she hoped that I would be so indebted to her that I would be forever in her grasp.
What I learned early on was that good intentions don’t always bring about the results that the doer hopes will happen. I might hold a door open for someone who glowers at me for thinking they needed help. Perhaps I’d go out of my way to help a student who spurned any efforts at assistance and encouragement.
Despite those early disappointments, I still believe in exercising good intentions whenever an opportunity arises. I’ve paid someone’s bridge toll knowing that they’d never do the same for me. I’ve let go of a garment that I wanted but knew the other person also wanted, hoping that they’d love it more than I did.
When driving and someone is trying to merge, I wave them in with the understanding that when I needed to switch lanes, no one will return the favor.
Imagine a life without good intentions. The sun won’t shine as brightly, the sky won’t be as blue and there will be far fewer smiles.
This is why good intentions are necessary. They bring joy. Smiles. Laughter. A lighthearted wave. Good feelings all around.