â€œIâ€™m not going to be able to give you your birthday money anymore,â€ Bubbie announces over egg rolls. Her announcement has a finality to it. As always, Bubbie is not messing around.
I look at her blankly, say nothing.
Itâ€™s my twelfth birthday. Iâ€™m celebrating with my mom, my aunt, and my grandma at the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Weâ€™re Jewish â€“ we celebrate many family occasions here.
Twelve-year-old me understands that Bubbieâ€™s â€œbirthday moneyâ€ is the U.S. government savings bond that she gives me each year for my birthday gift. I know that the money is for my college fund. I also understand that when she says she wonâ€™t be able to what she means is that sheâ€™s not going to. Sheâ€™s punishing me, but I donâ€™t know why.
Two weeks earlier there was a fight. Iâ€™d like to tell you that it wasnâ€™t physical, but it was. I lost. My sister, then 30 years old, won, in more ways than one.
â€œMother,â€ my mom sharply protests. In her defense, she did try to speak up for me, this time. Two weeks earlier it had been a different story. â€œItâ€™s Christiâ€™s birthday. Letâ€™s enjoy our lunch.â€
â€œFine,â€ announces Bubbie, shaking her head self-righteously. So the subject is dropped. But it still hangs there, above our table, clouding our wonton soup. Lingering.
At 12, I had no idea why my sister attacked me, frightening me, hitting me, blaming me for her failures. I had no idea â€“ then and now â€“ why my grandmother could have possibly sided with my sister. It was my first sign of their unbreakable and dysfunctional bond. I had no idea how money equaled love to my Bubbie, and how she could only show her love for her first granddaughter â€“ her rightful granddaughter â€“ by taking it away from me, her last granddaughter, her only illegitimate one. I only knew that I must have done something really wrong to make everyone hate me. But I had no idea what it was.
I stare at the fish tanks and wish that I could get in, get away from my family, this family of only women who seem to want to tear each other apart. I donâ€™t want to be 12 if this means no one loves me anymore, that by simply being me Iâ€™ve done everything wrong. I canâ€™t even say anything. I have no idea what to say. So I eat my soup and stare silently at the fish.
This meal was one of many Chinese restaurant meals with my family, similar in menu, dÃ©cor, and introspection. I spent my teenage years floating in and out of my relationship with Bubbie. Sometimes I worked hard to please her, sometimes I tolerated her quietly, sometimes I fought back. But I always knew that no matter what I did, it would never be enough. And true to her word, she never gave me another birthday bond.