Fragile means many things to me, but I’ll pick that which sits squarely in my space right now, something I am working on at this very moment, with a schedule, goals and ambitions to defeat it, absorb it and move on.
The problem started before I had any conscious control, and I’m ashamed, even though it’s not entirely my fault.
The evidence is there in the old family photo albums; the labeling started when I was about one. In this album are pictures of Boo and of me, both in pale pink dresses embroidered with rosebuds, sitting on the green wrought iron garden chair against a backdrop of creamy white camellias. The pictures look beautiful. Boo, naturally, is perfect, always perfect, smiling engagingly for the camera, the right blend of lovely and shy, coy and ethereal. And then there’s me. I’m one. Short dark hair, huge blue eyes, long dark eyelashes. I am a baby and have the blank look of neutrality not uncommon in kids that age. I look sleepy. I am not smiling. Below it is a handwritten caption in white ink on the black scrapbook paper, and it reads, “Tonia’s idea of a smile.”
It started that early. By age one.
Throughout my childhood, family photos were a source of distress for me. My dad would have us kids lined up somewhere with Mom in the background barking orders to perfect the photographic composition. What started out as impromptu and fun immediately became a source of tension until I could feel the pressure skyrocketing through the roof. I can think of nothing that more quickly kills an earnest smile than instructions on when, where and how long you should do it. No sooner would I smile than she would say my smile was dopey and utter the words, “Come on, Miss Mary Sunshine,” delivered with a sneer and spite, readily producing my genuine scowl. I grew to hate photographs and being seen.
Nowadays, a pediatrician might have questioned if I were on the autism spectrum somewhere or, if not that, a baby improperly socialized by its mother (bingo), but back in the olden days when babies trudged two miles through the snows and assaults of everyday American family life, I was just weird, and the question was: how weird was I going to become?
By the time I was seven, my mom had created a great game to alleviate boredom on family car rides. It usually started as a way to end some genuinely fun game we girls had devised, such as pinching each other when Mom said to be quiet and then trying not to laugh and get in trouble. Whatever the case, the purpose of her game was group control, and it revealed to me, then and forever, much about people, manipulation and harm as I learned to be invisible and burnished those skills with pumice and care.
She would start saying, “Miss Mary Sunshine.” It would start quietly, yet she’d persist until she got my sisters reluctantly chanting it, too, so afraid were they to oppose her or become the target. No matter how hard I would try not to let it bother me, I would always, eventually, dissolve into tears of silent humiliation. My humiliation was her aim all along.
To this day, I grow tense at the words “miss” or “Mary” or “sunshine,” am terrified when people want to see me or take my picture. My chest gets tight and I have trouble breathing. I’m okay(ish) with impromptu views of me, but posed pictures are impossible for me and send me into waves of nausea, fear, fight-or-flight and anxiety, none of which produces a natural smile. The problem has grown to where I don’t like to Skype, look in mirrors or even see my reflection in windows. I work on it. I fail at it. It humbles me again and again.
Someday I hope to be an author, and my plan to hire a photographic stand-in conflicts with the need to be recognizable when out promoting a book. Thus, I’m in a self-inflicted training regimen attempting progressive desensitization by taking selfies and forcing myself to look at them while breathing. A friend asked if she could take my picture next month and I told her she is four months ahead of schedule, that at Oxbridge I would have my picture taken, but not before.
That’s me: fragile. Hate having my picture taken. Hate mirrors. Hate being seen.
17 Replies to “Miss Mary Sunshine”
Tonia, I can almost not comment as I hear similar taunts in my head from my sisters. My heart aches doe the little girl who felt this pain. Thank you for the work you are doing to be able to be recognized when you get that book written. You are someone I have come to deeply admire. Peace to you.
Thanks for reading Linda. My sisters are actually wonderful and this was just a low moment. Honestly, if it had been them, I would have sold them down the river too. We laugh about it today because ironically, it was funny. Thanks for your admiration even though you are admiring the class clown so to speak. : )
I love my class clowns. My biggest threats to them is that if they keep it up then it must be one of their educational goals. If so they would need to join me fore a recess research project on the career opportunities for class clowns. One grade took me up on it and we had a comedy lunch time club for a while.
Linda, that’s a great idea. Love it.
You and me, we’re a lot alike on some things. Seems the longer I know you the more it rings true. Some I can’t speak out loud. You’ll have to read between the lines or trust me.
Abuse of control takes its toll and leaves scars. Taking our power back is hard work. I’m proud of you!
You will be ready for that photo, Tonia.
Melinda, I wish you weren’t saying that we had this in common, yet inspired that someone I think of as so capable (you) journeys with me and of course I trust you. When I have that picture taken, I plan to wear my dopey smile. : )
Is this why you have the profile picture of the heart?
Mike, yes, I guess and I like Steampunk too. Thanks for reading.
Great stuff, again. I love how you handle a problem by claiming it and making a plan. I look forward to seeing your photo on your book jacket.
Debbie, in my interim plan, even in my selfies, I wear a raccoon, a single one, slightly off center on my back. I like the look. Picked it up from a friend! I like to take each problem and kick it around the neighborhood until it squeals “uncle”.
I love that line about “when babies trudged two miles through the snows and assaults of everyday American family life.” I also like the line about “learn[ing] to be invisible and burnish[ing] those skills with pumice and care.” I just picked up the camera and planted myself firmly on the other end of it–a little more control there .
We have a picture of me—I think I was 4—taken at Sears, or JC Penney, and it’s clear I’ve been crying because I got spanked for not smiling and cooperating for the picture. So we immortalized the red-eyed red face of forced cooperation. I feel you.
I love that you noticed about the babies trudging through the snow…I laughed my ass off as I wrote that, am so easily amused. Sorry to hear your story about your photo. Ouch!
It’s one of the very best lines. I sometimes crack myself up while I’m writing, too. And sing along in my headphones. And fidget like mad. Wonder why writing is such a solitary activity.
Horrible experiences. Makes me want to go grrr. Glad you’re on the path to moving past this. Writing so powerfully about it is a great start.
Thanks for reading. I hope to have moved past all of this before I die!
Growing up is rough. And yet, without having experienced such pain and rejection, would you be able to identify with others? And to write so beautifully? I wonder.
I dislike photos of myself, not because of pain, but because I am vain. And aging.
And I used to think vain women were young women. Wrong!
Laura, you raise a great point and I’ll say this, I wouldn’t change a single thing about my upbringing from the bad parts to the good parts. It made me exactly who I am and I don’t ever want to be anyone else. My mom was a whack-job for a time, but in the end she got hers…forgiveness that is. I love and miss her still.
I’m considering vanity and need to get a little. Time I went to a mirror and had a good look. Btw, I am very age positive and think the older, smarter and more accomplished people are, the hotter they are. That’s my worldview anyway. Thanks for reading.