Sometimes I think back at the unintended lessons in my childhood. Certain events, seemingly unremarkable, are carved in my otherwise terrible memory. They tend to be occasions when the stated principles and action of adults didn’t quite match. They were often unpleasant, but they all taught me something. Unfortunately, they often taught me the wrong things – or rather, the ways in which I explained the events as a child made sense at the time, but was both biased and anti-useful. And because I absorbed the lessons without really examining them, I’ve failed to reject them. Some of them trouble me still.
I was about 11 or 12 when kiwi fruits either reached Italy, or became cheap enough for my family to afford them. My mom turned up one day with this brown, hairy, scratchy, alien thing that was allegedly a food. She wasn’t sure how to tell if it was ripe, or whether you ate all the bits (kids, this was before the internet). After consulting with the next door neighbour, she eventually managed to negotiate the complex workings of the item and I was presented with two halves of a kiwi and a spoon. She watched me try it with a degree of caution, and then rapidly scoff the entire thing. She asked repeatedly if I liked it. I repeatedly said that I did. The kingdom rejoiced. Kiwis were on the menu.
She came back from the next shopping trip with more kiwis. They were super-special items, to be consumed one at day. That’s how my family rolled; everything in moderation, except moderation. Kiwi no. 2 was just as pleasant as Kiwi no.1. Kiwi no. 3, the day after, did not disappoint. Kiwi no. 4, however… After I ate it, my mouth started burning and my tongue felt as if it was swelling up. I thought it was weird and told my mom, but she didn’t think much of that.
Kiwi no. 5 was worse. It felt as if I’d been chewing nettle leaves. My tongue felt too big for my mouth, and I couldn’t speak properly. I tried to suggest that the kiwis may be to blame – mouth didn’t hurt before kiwi, mouth hurt after kiwi, ergo – but my mom wouldn’t have any of that. She determined that for some mysterious reasons I had changed my mind about wanting to eat them, and was making stuff up. Well, she’d bought them now, and we sure as hell weren’t going to let them go to waste! I suggested that she could eat them, but that was Not The Point because She Bought Them For Me because I Said I Liked Them.
So I had to eat the damn things. Even though I knew that it was going to be hurting shortly thereafter. Even though it felt worse every time. I couldn’t even stash them and chuck them afterwards, or just toss them out the window, because my mom would sit there to make sure I was eating them properly. There were only three kiwis to go, though. I could do this.
Once the kiwis ran out, I was overjoyed.
Then my mom came home with more kiwis.
They are good for you, kiwis are. Full of vitamins. She’d read it in the papers. I’d eaten the last lot, so why would I stop eating them now? Why did I always have to make such a fuss?
This went on until my grandma decided give kiwis a try, too. She came back complaining of a burning mouth. She wasn’t the sort to randomly slander fruit (unlike me, apparently), so it was determined that kiwis were not our friends, after all. They were taken off the menu, and never spoken of again.
Google now tells me that kiwis are actually kinda famous for triggering “oral allergy syndrome” – a generally non-dangerous but entirely unfunny and relatively common reaction. I can’t blame my mom for not knowing that, considering that she had to ask a friend to find out whether we should be eating the peel. She honestly didn’t have a clue, nor any easy way to find out. I can, however, consider her kind of a shitheel for making me eat the damn things when I kept saying that they were hurting me; but that’s taken three decades.
What did I learn back then? That it was pointless to tell my mom about my problems, because she would not believe me. That involving her in my issues actually reduced my ability to find and implement my own solutions. That I would only be believed if a third party backed me up. But because I was a kid, and I loved my mom, and my mom told me that she loved me, I couldn’t make this about her. It had to be about me. So it became a lesson about my lack of credibility; about the futility of my speaking out unless I can do so as part of a chorus. It became a lesson on how people who love each other treat each other. It became part of my normality.
So what? Well, last week I realised it had taken me a year to mention to a self-defence instructor that one of the students in his class was, in my experience, a bit of a perv. I only did that because a third party actually asked me my opinion about the guy, and when I mentioned my concerns asked me whether I’d told the instructor. It hadn’t occurred to me to do so. I couldn’t see the point. Thing is, I know that instructor, and he’s not an asshole. He cares about this kind of thing, and now that he knows he’ll keep an eye out for any problems and stomp them mightily (and literally) if they ever occur. I’d known that all along, really. This isn’t about him; this is about me. Or rather, it’s about me and my mom, and a bag of kiwis.
I have to teach myself that it’s not normal for people who allegedly care for you to brush off your concerns just because they’re inconvenient. I have to remind myself that there is nothing inherently worthless about what I say, and if I can’t get heard by someone that’s not necessarily on me. I have to learn that love, care, and respect are things you show, not just things you talk about. And I have to give myself the right to accept that people who show me no respect are not on my team, however loudly they may state otherwise. But in order to find out what kind of people I’m dealing with, I have to speak out first. I have to speak as if I expected them to respond with respect and consideration; and if they don’t, I have to rearrange my opinions of them accordingly. But I have to speak out.