In honor of Women’s History Month, I’ve decided to write about three amazing women in my life. My grandmother was the first. My favorite cousin is the second.

My favorite cousin is Lauren*. She’s the daughter of my mother’s brother. He was the middle child in the family, there being one other younger brother. She didn’t have an easy time of it due to two messed-up parents, an evil step-mother, and an abusive extended family. She’s remained true to herself, though, and she supported me when no one else would.

A Victim of Divorce

I first met Lauren when she was 10 and I was 16 when I moved back to the country of my birth. She’d lived there all her life while I lived most of the first 16 years of my life in the U.S. She was an attractive girl who, I later discovered, had a good personality, a terrific sense of humor, and a friendly way about her. I actually met her at a really bad time in her life. Her parents were going through a nasty divorce, and neither of them were coping well with it.

Her father, my uncle, is a carbon copy of my grandfather on my mother’s side. He’s actually my favorite uncle. He has a good sense of humor and is generous and kind. Unfortunately, he’s also extremely passive and easily controlled by those around him. He basically wants no trouble and is willing to do anything to avoid conflict.

I don’t remember a whole lot about Lauren’s mother because I only saw her a few times while the divorce was going on. I do remember that she was a beautiful woman who taught dance. She wasn’t, however, a particularly loving mother, in spite of going on to remarry and have another child.

Lauren’s younger brother by about four years is a carbon copy of his father (and grandfather). He’s an incredibly sweet guy with a good sense of humor and a friendly nature. He also, however, is very passive and easily controlled. He and Lauren are very close, having basically been the best support they had throughout their parents’ divorce.

Lauren’s mother made it clear that she wasn’t interested in getting custody of her children. As in the United States, this is rare and frowned upon by society. Kids aren’t stupid. No matter how much you tell them that Mommy loves them but thinks they’d be better off with Daddy, the kids know they’re being rejected. My uncle essentially accepted custody of his children because he had no choice. He loved them, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t the sort of guy to embrace single fatherhood. But he recognized his duty and he did it.

However, during the prolonged divorce proceedings, he came to a point where he couldn’t cope psychologically with what was going on. It was then clear that we would be moving back to our country of birth, and my other uncle (a model of narcissism) convinced him to take a trip with him and a childhood friend across the United States. Trips are good, but not when your children desperately need you. This trip, understandably, has always been a thorn in Lauren’s side.

My uncles and their friend were still on their trip when I arrived in my country of birth, so I saw her weeks before her father did. She was quiet and withdrawn when I first met her, but I was later to discover that this wasn’t her true nature. Lauren is very much a people person, but the messy divorce caused her to keep mostly to herself. She was also protective of her younger brother.

One thing I remember during this time was a drive she took with my Grandma Esther (whom I wrote about last week), my sister, and me. My grandmother was fond of children and took a genuine interest in them, and we all had a good time. When Grandma Esther died, Lauren consoled me by telling me that she remembered my grandmother and the drive we all took and how much it had meant to her at the time when it seemed no one cared much for her or her brother.

Once her father came back from his trip to the States and they’d established a stable lifestyle, she started coming out of her shell. We would meet during family gatherings, holidays, and occasionally just for the fun of it. As I look back on it now, I was an anal basket case compared to her laid-back personality. I sometimes wonder why she didn’t reject me as her weird, uptight American cousin.

Snow White's evil step-mother asking her mirror who's the fairest in the land

Snow White's evil step-mother was self-involved and cruel, not unlike Lauren's step-mother! Illustration from Mjallhvít (Snow White), an Icelandic translation of the fairytale, 1852. In the public domain

The Evil Step-Mother

Lauren and I really got close when the evil step-mother came onto the scene. As I mentioned, my uncle was a friendly man but extremely passive and avoided conflict whenever possible. He was ripe to be manipulated by a controlling woman, and Lauren’s step-mother was crafty. She was basically a control freak and an emotional abuser.

When she first started going out with my uncle, she made fast friends with his children. She had a daughter of her own who also became a friend. She covered up her controlling nature, and it wasn’t long before they spoke of marriage. My uncle was the reluctant one, and Lauren and her brother would both encourage him. They honestly thought she was a terrific woman.

He finally relented, and they got married when Lauren was about 17. Then things quickly deteriorated. The step-mother’s controlling nature came out, and she triumphed easily over my passive uncle, my passive cousin (Lauren’s brother), and her passive daughter (whom she had bullied since birth). Lauren, however, had a lot more fire in her and wouldn’t be bullied. She was hurt and confused at her step-mother’s two-faced nature, but she would argue and violate her step-mother’s oppressive rules (which her father, naturally, never contradicted).

Things came to a head shortly after the marriage. I believe the argument was over Lauren’s use of the phone. She admitted to me later that she behaved badly, calling her step-mother names and throwing the phone against the wall. However, when her step-mother sent her packing, she expected her father to stand up for her. He didn’t, so she packed up and left. She later told me her brother ran after her and begged her to stay. I imagine his greatest protector was walking out of his life, and it was hell for him after that.

Being the outgoing person she was, Lauren had lots of friends and would spend the night with one or another of them. Clearly, though, this wasn’t a permanent solution. My mother even considered having her stay at our place, since my sister had by that time moved back to the States and her room was empty. I would have loved having her as a roommate and told my mother so. But in truth, my mother was too selfish to really want her and would have gone through with it only out of duty.

Finally, our grandmother stepped forward, though more, I suspect, from embarrassment at her granddaughter’s situation and from the thought of being praised for doing something noble than out of love for Lauren. (I know I sound harsh towards these women, but my grandmother and mother both have serious psychological problems and are emotional abusers, so I know of what I speak!) To my narcissistic grandmother, letting a grandchild intrude upon her home life was a big sacrifice, and she fully expected Lauren’s eternal gratitude from then on.

Lauren, however, wasn’t the type to express eternal gratitude towards anybody. She knew damn well that she was being treated again as unwanted cargo. She lived with my grandmother till her marriage years later, and my grandmother never ceased complaining about her. She didn’t meet my grandmother’s standards of cleanliness and neatness, keeping in mind that my grandmother is obsessed with cleanliness and neatness and has unreasonable standards that no sane person can meet! Then there was the lack of gratitude, which grated on my grandmother’s nerves.

At this time, as I mentioned, my sister had left the country and I was going through a difficult emotional period. I was torn between staying where I was and moving to the States to live with my sister and brother. I was also disillusioned by my college education, which I now considered mostly a waste of time and energy. Worst of all, I felt smothered by my abusive parents. Perhaps she sensed we needed each other’s support. We would talk every other day on the phone and meet a few times a week. We always supported each other against our oppressive, abusive family. She was a real source of strength to me, and I hope I was to her.

When I finally made the decision to move back to the States, no one in my family supported me except her (and my sister and brother, but they were in the States). Most of my family saw no reason to live anywhere else except our country of birth. I didn’t then understand that I was cutting myself off from a family of emotional abusers, but I knew by that time that this was the right choice for me. I remember her telling me

They see every decision that goes against what they want as selfish. It’s your life and you have to live it the way you need to live it. It’s not their life; it’s your life.

It did a lot for me to hear that.

Adulthood

When Lauren lived with my grandmother, she was in the army (mandatory in my country of birth) and I was in graduate school. She was mostly financially supporting herself. She got no help from her father or her mother. She did spend time with her father when he came to visit my grandmother, but she never set foot again in his house. Needless to say, the evil step-mother has remained to this day, although I believe they’ve somewhat reconciled, now that Lauren is married and has her own stable home.

She had her first serious boyfriend at about this time, though I never met him. He had his own problems, and the relationship didn’t last. She met a more mature guy after I’d moved back to the States and was living with my sister. They made a cross-country trip just after their engagement and came to visit us. She looked much happier and more relaxed. I know she was happily married to her fiance, who seemed a solid, dependable kind of guy. He was certainly not like her father! The last I heard, she was working in human resources, which is the perfect job for her, she being such a people person.

I know no more than this, although I suspect she has children by now. The sort of abuse that went on in my family (i.e., enmeshment) made me decide not to try to maintain a relationship with anyone, including my favorite cousin. I know she’d be constantly harassed by them about where I was, what I was doing, and why I decided to cut ties with the family (they, of course, not recognizing that they were abusers). I just couldn’t do that to her. I miss her a lot, but I take comfort in the relationship that we had. Thank you, Lauren, for your support and strength when I most needed it.

Read the third in my series for Women’s History Month 2012 on my former therapist.

* Lauren isn’t her real name, which I prefer to keep confidential because she’s still living (as far as I know). I also choose to be discreet about place names for privacy reasons. Dates and ages are sometimes approximate simply due to my bad memory when it comes to numbers!