I believe it was my brother's 14th birthday when he got a nickel in a box from my Mom. I don't know if it was something he asked her for, or if she thought it up all her own, but that nickel was very powerful in our family and defined relationships, communication and sadly; value.
Whoever thought of it, the idea was simply that once a day, every day of my brother's 14th year, my mom and he would connect. She would give him the nickel and tell him "Happy Birthday Son! I am glad you were born!" He proudly saved the nickels in stacks on his bookshelf, each week there was a pile of 7 more. 7 more confirmations of support, 7 more expressions of love.
I thought the idea was brilliant and touching and sweet. At the end of the year you would only have $18.25- which was not a lot of money back then, but you would have had 365 moments to connect with Mom. Moments when no matter what problems Mom was having in her day, or what problems had occurred in his- there was going to be that one moment where that stuff didn't matter and she would tell her son; "Happy Birthday! Thank you for being my child."
My brother's birthday is in April, so when my birthday came in July I asked my Mom if I could have a nickel too. I was told no. It would be unfair to my brother. It was explained to me that the sentiment between she and him would somehow be diluted by my getting a nickel too. I was told that he was good at saving money and I was not and therefore I'd never be able to stack all 365 nickels on the shelf without spending them. Well, it was their thing, I told myself, and not mine. I needed to think hard to somehow create a special ritual with my Mom.
The following year for my brother's birthday, my Mom and he went shopping together and spent the $18.00 on a gift of my brother's choosing. Later that night while we had cake and ice cream as a family, he received another small box- this one containing a dime. My brother was happily surprised at this gift, because he was certain that the previous nickel was a one-year deal- and now this next year, he would end up with twice as much, and almost $40.00 wasn't too bad for a 15-year-old kid in the 1980's.
When my birthday rolled around in July, I asked again if I could have a nickel. I figured he was now getting twice as much, so my nickel couldn't possibly affect the arrangement between them. I explained to my Mom I was older, and much more capable of saving money and that we could make a deal that at the end of the year, if I spend even .05cents of the money, she could have it all back. It would be a lesson in saving as well as a chance for us to connect every day too. I was told no.
That year my resentment grew at the rate of one dime a day. Each pile that was stacked on his bookshelf was like a monument to their love and their relationship that seemed so strong and so different than the relationship I had with my Mom. I began to feel like I wasn't actually worth a dime a day, or even a nickel, and in some ways I suppose I wasn't. I'm sure my Mom didn't consciously try to create that feeling of inferiority or worthlessness. But when I looked at the facts- he was worth 10 times more than I was every day.
During that year, their closeness became a wedge between my Mom and me. I felt I couldn't get in. The dimes were everywhere as a reminder that I had no value in my family. Mom stacked her dimes in the kitchen cupboard, he stacked his on the most prominent shelf in his room. Every day they would hug and giggle and say "Happy Birthday" and "Thank you for being my family" and I felt excluded. More and more excluded until I no longer felt a part of that family at all. Of course our family had tons of other problems, the dime thing was just something visible I could focus on.
The following birthday he got a quarter! Now he was going to have more than double of what he had the year before. I knew enough that I didn't ask for any special daily ritual. I knew enough to just hide, stay invisible or stay angry. I did a lot of that.
I see this type of situation happening all around me- parents who seem so intelligent and loving but will say out loud; "If I knew how hard this one was going to be, I would have stopped with one." or "My son is so cute or talented or more socially adept than his sister". I don't understand why they can't see how damaging it can be to the child who isn't the easy one. Don't they understand that just by saying those things to children they can make them true? If so-and-so always hears they are the "difficult" child, will they ever believe they can be anything else? I grew up thinking I wasn't worth a nickel and believe me, by the time I was a teenager I was making sure everyone else knew that too.
You can’t call a child a slob over and over and then expect them to clean their room.
I am a Mom now, so I understand a lot more about why my parents did the things they did. I understand many of the choices they made and although I don't agree with them, or I think I would have found another way, I still understand why they felt they had no other choice.
My parents did the best they could, and coming from how they were raised, they have done 100% better. Isn't that all we can really hope for as parents? To improve upon what we had. Take the good and bring it along and revise the bad or make it go away.
Even with all that justification, I just can’t figure out why I couldn't have a nickel. Why would anyone have two children and consistently give one child some things they would never consider giving the other? Again, I am not talking about just the nickels, but other things as well. The nickels were just a symbol for the effort my Mom put into maintaining a loving relationship with her son.
So, when your Mom is dead and you can't ask her as an adult "Hey, what was the real reason you couldn't give me a nickel?" What do you do? How do you make sense of this? How do you heal yourself and make the world a better place for your own child?
I start by telling my son only the great stories about his Grandmother he's never met. I tell him about how smart and strong she was and how much she would have loved to have held him.
On my son's 10th birthday, I gave him a nickel.
Each night before my son goes to sleep I kiss him and tell him Happy Birthday! Thank you for being born to me and letting me be your Mom. He thanks me for making him and being his Mom. I kiss him and put the coin in the empty peanut butter jar and screw the lid back on. Every night the child inside me is healed. Every night my son knows I love him and no matter what my mood or his, we stop and say I Love You!