“Oh Ivory, you’re so… unique”. I can still hear the patronizing voice of my aunt in my head. I was 11 and this was a word she used to deteriorate me. Unique was the word she used to describe me when it came to anything creative or musical, when it came to my looks, when it came to the validation she knew I was hungry for as a child. Words she used to describe my cousins, her two daughters were “ beautiful” “gifted” “talented” but with me there was always a pause and she would draw it out before using “unique”.
This was before being unique was embraced by mainstream culture, this was before I harnessed it into a strength and at the time it always left me gutted. I didn’t want to be unique, I wanted to be all the words she used for her daughters but for me there was only ever unique. For a long time the word stung and haunted me. When in the mid 2000’s growing up in a strict Christian home being “normal” was your cultural narrative I desperately wanted to feel a part of the club, but my aunt had it out for me and made sure there was a separating distinction between me and her daughters. Any compliments she gave me were begrudging or to validate her worth as my temporary guardian. “ Oh see Ivory, you can spell” “ Oh Ivory you’ve gotten so much better at reading” she would clap her hands like I was a performing seal and I would happily oblige because I was desperate for her love and acceptance. Sadly two things I never received from her unless they were brief moments around other relatives or strangers.
My Aunt’s other favorite word to describe me was “comedian”. Ivory- the unique comedian. Janelle my cousin was the gifted songstress, and Lindsey the beautiful creative, but me I was the irritating court jester that was ruining my aunt’s happy home. Her daughters had music aspirations from the time we lived together as 9-13 years olds. I too had music aspirations as my dad was a musician. Anytime I would sit to play piano my Aunt would become annoyed and cut my practice time shorter than the hours she gave to my cousin. She was the one who needed the piano after all, she was the talented one not me. Both of my cousins took guitar lessons, which I was never allowed to since my aunt couldn’t afford for me to do them, granted she and my uncle were wealthy and lived in one of the most expensive homes in the town they lived in, but the tap stopped when it came to me. I was the charity case niece she took in out of the goodness of her heart. A reminder she gave me often.
My cousins were in voice lessons and did photoshoots with my Uncle’s photographer friends( shoots that were conveniently scheduled when I was gone taking unnecessary vowel lessons at a community center). Anytime I attempted to sing my aunt would look at me and say the word“unique” while glowing over my cousin’s “ beautifully gifted” singing voice. This instilled a vocal complex in me that I wasn’t able to fully release until much later in my life when I found my therapist. By the time I left Oregon and was able to finally live with my dad again, I was so severely damaged I remember some days barely being able to connect cohesive sentences when my Aunt would talk to me. I was a shell of myself around her, and terrified of stepping out of place- always on eggshells never knowing what would bring her wrath upon me.
In many ways I believe her entire goal was to deteriorate any sense of self worth I had at the time, to make me a stuttering, nervous wreck which is exactly what I was by the end. My aunt resented me, envied me, and hated herself for it. These weren’t things she meant to do consciously- if you asked her point blank about me she would say “ oh Ivory, she is a gifted writer, I loved having her live with me, I was hard on her but it was only because I wanted her to do well” but behind closed doors her own repressed anger and frustration turned me into her personal punching bag.
In spite of these things I never once held it against her. I tried for a long time to stay in their lives. I remember calling my aunt when I was 14 to say hi and she said “ what do you want Ivory, you only ever call when you’ve done something wrong.” I remember being baffled, the gaslighting was something she was so subtle at but this truly didn’t make sense. Did it? “ That’s not true” I said, but instantly agreed with her in my head I’m such a terrible person I would think. Disgusting, flirtatious girl, my Aunt is right, I’m nothing and maybe subconsciously I did call her when I felt I did something “wrong” because I believed I still needed her to punish me.
Thankfully I had my dad to balance me out, he was always overly proud of me and never once confirmed any of the things my Aunt made me believe about myself for so long. I stopped calling her after that. Why would I want to keep talking to someone that made me feel so bad every time we spoke? She wasn’t my guardian anymore, I could do whatever I wanted. I kept a distance until I was an adult and my grandma came down with cancer. I was the sole emergency contact and unfortunately it was my job to distribute information.
My aunt called me 10 times before I even had a chance to leave the hospital the night my grandma was in surgery. I had a brief conversation with her, to which she sobbed uncontrollably and then snapped into fixer mode. After my grandma was finally better, my husband talked to me because he could see the toll dealing with my aunt was taking on me. “ She doesn’t have good intentions for you Ivory, she doesn’t love you” and with that, I knew my husband meant it. There was immense sadness when I came to this conclusion, especially because ending relationships with family is something I would never willingly do. Family is deeply important to me & I usually would turn the other cheek but with my Aunt and cousins things were different. I had no more cheeks, arms, legs, identity, self worth, or patience left to sacrifice for them.
With the immense sadness at closing this relationship came a soothing ebb of relief and healing as well. My therapist helped me do a vocal clearing exercise once when I told her my throat was tightening and giving me pain every time I sang. She had me put my hands over my throat and say ” My voice matters” ” My voice is beautiful” ” I am aloud to be loud”. I cried. No one had ever given me permission to take up space and be loud, but what was even more painful was the realization that I myself hadn’t given myself permission.
The pain I harbored in my throat gradually left as I worked on this practice. So often I had betrayed myself in my adult life, so often the inner critique of my Aunt played in my ear, and so often I allowed her to win. Upon realizing these things I visualized the little girl that lived with my Aunt during her tender early preteen years. I decided to no longer betray her. I decided that in fact, she was my priority and that she no longer needed other people to give her permission to be herself. I would no longer perpetuate my Aunt’s abuse towards myself and I would in fact be proud to be unique.