Today’s math lesson: Money = Love

“I’m not going to be able to give you your birthday money anymore,” 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.

It’s my twelfth birthday. I’m celebrating with my mom, my aunt, and my grandma at the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. We’re Jewish – we celebrate many family occasions here.

Twelve-year-old me understands that Bubbie’s “birthday money” 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 won’t be able to what she means is that she’s not going to. She’s punishing me, but I don’t know why.

Two weeks earlier there was a fight. I’d like to tell you that it wasn’t physical, but it was. I lost. My sister, then 30 years old, won, in more ways than one.

“Mother,” 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. “It’s Christi’s birthday. Let’s enjoy our lunch.”

“Fine,” 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 – then and now – 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 – her rightful granddaughter – 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 don’t want to be 12 if this means no one loves me anymore, that by simply being me I’ve done everything wrong. I can’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, décor, 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.