My mother is a talker. She talks to strangers in the grocery store, and at the gas station, and anywhere else you happen to take the woman. I come by my own chatty nature honestly. As a young child, I was nearly always at my mother’s side. She was often talking to other adults. If I played quietly, I could usually stay and listen. So I did. One day, she said something about my father that stuck in my mind. She said, “Well, Brittany’s more mature than he is! She’s basically the adult when they’re back east.” The term “back east” was my mother’s way of referring to Louisiana. “They” would be my sister, my brother, and myself. But she’d said something else, about me specifically: I was the adult.
I was the adult. I took this notion to heart. It was nurtured in the actions of the adults around me, and I watered that seed of assumed-truth like it would grow into understanding, which it never did. Adults had things together, and as an adult, I must have had things together. I was an example. Not just an example, but a good example. I was not a normal child. Somehow, I must’ve advanced and been promoted to adulthood early, based on my flawless behavior. This became a point of pride I held close over the years.
Being an adult came with several tasks that were not clearly explained to me. I struggled with these concepts. I wanted to understand how I could make the decisions while I held so little power. Asking for help seemed weak. Adults didn’t need to ask for help. I wanted to figure out how to do things on my own. Giving orders got me nowhere, fast. I started to explore manipulation as a tool to get things accomplished.
Despite my lack of ability to control things, I was held accountable for adult tasks. Some behind closed doors, but many in open daylight.
Ma-Ma used to tell the story about when I forgot to pack my brother socks for a weekend visit. I was five years old in the story. That would make my sister about three, and my brother about one and a half.
Ma-Ma, Pa-Pa, and I would be in the car. I’d be driving us to Applebee’s to eat the same salad she and my Pa-Pa split every time. She would tell the story as if we hadn’t heard it before. I’d been living in New Orleans since age eighteen, experiencing my dad’s side of the family firsthand. Ma-Ma would start out each story about my childhood with a statement on how much my father loved me.
“I know your Daddy loved you, in his own way. But he wasn’t always the best with you kids. I remember when you came to stay that time, and he was yelling at you for forgetting to pack Alex socks. And I thought, why is that baby responsible for packing?”
Right now in Chalmette, in the top left-hand corner of my boy’s closet, sits a box that contains letters and cards my mother sent me while I was visiting my father as a child. Pink envelopes cradle teddy bear images and bubble-shaped letters. Stickers are smiling up from the stationary pages. My mother tells me to be a big girl, and a good helper. To make sure I take care of Allison and Alex.
Is it wrong for an adult to tell a child to watch their sibling? No. It was a statement I have heard used by nearly every parent I know.
Why do some things affect some people in more extreme ways than others? Why did I invest such a portion of my young identity to being a caretaker? I don’t know.
I do know that I am an excellent caretaker. I did it as a child by accident, and by happenstance. I did well. It’s possible that without the efforts I made, my siblings and I might not have come out as well as we have. I’ve learned that while I can take care of people, I don’t have to heal the world. I can say no. I can turn my caretaking inward, to care for myself.
As a grown woman, I’m aware that being an adult means being responsible, not just having responsibilities assigned. I had tasks that no child should be given. I shouldered responsibilities that belonged to others, to the adults surrounding me. I stood under the weight and it made me stronger.
As a child, I imagined myself an adult. As an adult, I wish I’d had more time in my childhood.