“My New Year’s resolution is to make peace with my mother’s relatives”, Rochelle stated confidently at the beginning of her first January interview with me in 2013. “I don’t know why they don’t like me. I never did nothin’ to them, but it is their problem, and I need to get over it”.
I had been interviewing her for five months and tears always welled up when the conversation drifted to this subject, as it often did. Her mother’s family lives three hours away in another big Texas city. This was where her mother had been raised, and every summer of her very young life Rochelle and her two older sisters had been shipped off to live with that grandmother. In the vicinity were also several of her aunts and many of her cousins. Some were often living in the grandmother’s house.
Rochelle’s early childhood, in fact most of her life, is dramatically unstable. “I don’t know what my mother was doing those summers, but I know she wasn’t taking care of me and my sisters,” said Rochelle when I raised the question. As mentioned earlier, the care and raising of children was not a focus of Rochelle’s mother’s life. It turns out it was also not a focus of her grandmother’s life. “My grandmother’s house was so ghetto and dirty,” is how she describes it. “Falling apart, too.” The grandmother just put the children outside in the Texas heat for the day. “There was nothin’ to do and it was hot. I hated it,” said Rochelle. “My grandma abused us. She didn’t really feed us. She would feed all the adults first, and then we would get the scraps.”
There was also abuse in other ways. Rochelle remembers one day when she and a cousin were fighting. She was a young child and so was her cousin. “They put us in a room and told us to fight it out. They told us to hit each other.” The scene was described very much like what one sees at a boxing match or dog fight. The adults were the spectators and the very young children were the entertainment. The cousin Rochelle fought with that day is now a prostitute with a pimp, and her children have been taken away. This prostitute cousin is constantly praised and admired by the relatives who aren’t fond of Rochelle. According to Rochelle, her family admires the cousin, Shaneekra, because she “always gets her hair and nails done, wears sexy clothes and has spending money.” These are attributes much admired by the extended family. Shaneekra is considered to be a success in life regardless of the fact that her children have been removed by Child Protective Services, and she makes her money taking directions from a pimp.
Rochelle’s childhood memories are not good ones. Today many of those maternal aunts and cousins write horrible things about her on Facebook and do not come to visit. Recently some had driven the three hours and were in Rochelle’s hometown, but they didn’t visit. They did call to say they were in town and were visiting another relative. None of these relatives came to her mother’s large 50th birthday party, though they were invited. Rochelle does not know why this is. Both she and her mother seem to be rejected by the family, and it hurts her deeply. She doesn’t discuss the problem with her mother but knows her mother is hurt, too. She doesn’t discuss much with her mother and never has. The dynamics of this dysfunctional relationship remains a mystery but strongly impact Rochelle’s life today and brings on tears every time it crosses her mind.