The first time that I can remember my trust being broken was the year I entered first grade.
My mother had remarried, and her last name had changed. I wanted to change my last name, too. I was still a part of the family, and I wanted to match. And I could spell the new last name. (Adams vs Whittenberg) I begged my mother to let me change it. In the southern California school districts, many enrollment forms offer a place for given name and preferred name. I was never legally Brittany Adams. Still, I bet no one in Whittier would remember a Brittany Whittenberg.
The name change was a secret. I wasn’t sure why, but it was. I am able to respect secrets, but I dislike them in general. Abuse thrives in secrecy. As a child, I loved the sharing. Being the first to reveal exciting news let butterflies loose in my belly.
One morning, my grandmother and I were sitting on the front porch. I was watching the rolly pollies crawling across the dry fountain. A little Dutch girl carrying an empty pail had half her face faded by the sun but held her stone smile in place. I wondered if it hurt to have half your face melt off. The fountain girl didn’t seem to notice.
My grandmother coughed. I think she asked me about school. I told her I had a new name but I couldn’t tell her about it unless she kept it a secret. She said she would.
However, as a young woman of the world, and having been to kindergarten, I knew a thing or two about secrets. I made sure she promised me. Then, I told her about my new name. I pointed out that the first two letters of the alphabet were now my initials. I spelled out A-D-A-M-S with pride and moderate speed.
Things got worse with my father a few nights later. I had done something wrong. I must’ve misunderstood a rule in the game. My hair was pulled closer to the base of my skull, and I remember his breath, coming fast and heavy on my skin. I could feel the droplets of his sweat dripping down onto me. Sometimes, he’d come into his room, and the game was for me to pretend to be asleep. I wasn’t meant to be sleeping for these nights. I was meant to be awake, and to feel the range of control he held.
I think it was dinner later that week when he announced that he knew about my name. He even said that Grandma Carrie had told him. She sat at the chestnut dining room table, flicking ash from her cigarette into the ashtray. I looked up and caught her eye. She wasn’t sad at all. She looked hollow. Like whoever lived in her head, behind her eyes, had left with the light on and never come back.
The name was of great significance to my father. In hindsight, I wonder why the fuss about a girl changing her name, anyway. My family is very much in favor of name changes with marriage, and my family is very much in favor of marriage.
Because of the distance inherent in my relationships with my father’s side of the family growing up, I saw them through rose colored glasses. I see this now as my nieces see me annually (maybe), and so I always visit with treats, presents, and trips to theme parks. Those fun-filled activities taint my nieces vision of me; they never hear me tell them to pick up, or be quiet, or wait their turn, or anything strict.
I thought my family in Louisiana more trustworthy than my California family because they gave me fancy things. I saw the structure my California family offered as restriction. At the time, being controlled, especially by adult family members, did not sound like a good idea.
I didn’t stop trusting people, but I stopped expecting things to be how they sounded. I stopped accepting people at their word. A word was given in the moment to most benefit the giver. It could be restated and given a new at will. This did not seem desirable.