Lesson Twenty-Three: Little Miss Maddie Liz

My relationship with my Ma-Ma was unique in my life. We got close when I was seventeen, and she was seventy-one. “We’re probably so connected because our ages are the same, in reverse,” she’d tell me in the RV, stroking my hair, reading a dime store romance novel.

Ma-Ma married my father’s father when I was three months old. I found old that she wasn’t my blood when I was eleven. I cried and wrote to her. She told me it didn’t matter and continued to send letters, presents, and love until I moved closer in 2004. When I told Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa about the abuse, Ma-Ma immediately validated me. She told me that her daughter hadn’t felt comfortable around Jim, and how she’d always wondered if he’d harmed my siblings and I. She soon recanted when Pa-Pa responded. After my Pa-Pa passed, I took Ma-Ma to get the tattoo she’d wanted for years.

Before my Ma-Ma met my Pa-Pa, she had been married and had children. She had another grandson named BJ. I met BJ when I was about seven or eight. He played Duck Hunt and slept on the couch without even putting sheets on it. He was cool. I think we had two conversations before Hurricane Katrina. We aren’t close. BJ struggles with addiction. At one of the rehab programs, he met a woman named Shanny. The two left the program together and moved back to the New Orleans area. Shanny was pregnant.

I met Shanny when Ma-Ma took us shopping at Target. Shanny was getting maternity clothes, and then we were going to meet Pa-Pa for dinner.

Shanny was not someone that I would’ve become friends with outside of this family connection. She’s brutally honest and lacks a delicate social grace. She’s hilarious, but also quick to express a differing opinion. She’s strong, proud, and long suffering. Over the years, I have come to admire her greatly.

Right away, as we got the shopping cart and Ma-Ma looked at the Milano cookies near the entrance, Shanny said I would be an aunt to her child. I grew up having several aunts, all of whom shaped me greatly as a woman. This was something I took seriously.

My niece, Madison Elizabeth, was born on September 24th, 2007. On the day she was born, Preston and I wrote a song for her to the tune of The Mickey Mouse Club. I sang it for her while I held her. She was six hours old and kept turning purple, so the nurses kept her under a light for a long time. Shanny had a c-section, was drugged, and could only have the baby with another person present. I sat next to Shanny, who tried to doze, little Madison sleeping on my chest. Shanny woke up and whispered, “Brittany,” she smiled at me, “I have a daughter.”

At about two weeks old, I was the first person to watch Maddie without her mom nearby. Shanny didn’t even make it to the grocery, but got nervous and came back early. I remember Maddie toddling around in a pink swimsuit at her first birthday party, Shanny scooping her up in the air and saying, “We did it! We made it through the year!”

I kept Maddie overnight frequently. She had her own playpen at my place and a car seat in my car. I read her books, signed, and sang numbers and letters like I’d just discovered them. I knew where all the playgrounds were within walking distance. I expanded my zoo membership to include a child. I absolutely loved being an aunt.

Stephanie had her own child and I was an aunt twice over. I started a postcard collection for Aubrey, sending her postcards with facts about the places or animals pictured. I started to buy them in duplicate, sending postcards to both nieces. I made them each a blanket. I wanted to be a force for good in young lives.

On Maddie’s fourth birthday, she spent the night. We went to the blue doored wonder of Julia Street and spent hours playing with all the museum exhibits. Maddie passed out immediately on an air mattress in the living room that night. I kissed her forehead and headed to my room. Shawna, my best friend, was checking her phone. We put on a movie and chatted about the day. We put the pictures we’d taken online for Shanny. We talked until we fell asleep.

A nightmare woke me, which in turn woke Shawna. The movie we’d been watching was back to the menu screen. The same loop of music was playing. I hit mute on the remote. Shawna started to look for her shoes. I went outside to the back porch while she smoked a cigarette. We watched the moon drift across the backyard. I started to quote Milo and Otis, a film we both knew well.

“You might not know this Shawna, but today is a very big day for me. For today is the day that I’ve become,” I paused, as Otis pauses in this moment of the film. “Not my father,” I finish. Shawna looked at me and exhaled smoke downward, away from our faces.

I explained. I’d heard about extreme cases of survivors who start to abuse others when/if they have kids, and the kids reach the age when the abuse started for the parent. I’d been worried about this since Lyra, but I didn’t have to worry for long. Nonetheless, Maddie was a child under my care. My abuse started at age four, and Maddie was here, at my house, being four.

I hadn’t even made the connection until the end of the day. If there wasn’t a nightmare that woke me and reminded me of the ever-present shadow of incest, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Shawna reassured me that I would never abuse anyone. I wasn’t like my parents. I was safe. Madison knew she was safe with me. For the first time out loud, I agreed.

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