Two weeks ago, my father and brother were on campus to help me move out of my apartment for the summer. As we stuffed the last of my boxes and clothes hangers into the trunk of the car, my father asked me if we needed to go back to the room to check if I’d forgotten anything. I told him not to worry, that I had checked before. I sat through an all too familiar split-second hesitation.
“What?” I asked, trying to mask my annoyance.
“I’m scared you forgot a box or something. … Are you sure you don’t want to just check? Do you want me to go check?”
Hearing this at nineteen years old should probably be surprising for some. For me, there hasn’t been a major life event without such anxiety. Even so, it’s hard not to take it personally after so many years. I am the youngest child in my family, with one brother who is nearly six years older than me, which really means I have three parents, all of whom have as little faith in my accountability as I had in a hot shower most mornings this year in Henle.
Part of it, I think, is being so young compared to the others in my family, but most of it, my parents never fail to remind me, is all my fault. Of the many things over which I have been scolded by my parents, the most common was without a doubt that I was one of those kids that gave youngest children a bad name. I was the child who always got the last slice of pizza at a dinner out, who won the TV remote just by walking into the living room, who was granted every favor, every wish and despite all this, demanded more.
“You’re getting to be that age where we can’t keep doing everything for you,” my mother told me for the first time when I was ten. “You’re old enough to be thinking of what you could be doing to make other peoples’ lives easier. It’s what we all do. It’s time to earn your place at the table.”
I remember laughing at this. My logic was simple. I loved my family. People only ever did things for people they loved. Of course I could do the same. What was so hard about that?
Despite my efforts, I am still the last person my mother asks to stop by the grocery store for paper towels, behind even my brother, who hasn’t lived at home since last September. To this day, I encounter that telltale pause after most everything I say to my family: I’ll be home at 5, I’ll make reservations for dinner, for the hundredth time, yes, I can pack by myself.
I’ll admit, it hurts the most when my parents’ siblings invite us over and, try as I might, I’m still banished to the kitchen table with my grade school cousins. I’ve stared down the hallway at the dining room at my brother, laughing at the head of the table with a glass of wine, and wonder what I’ve done wrong in the nine years I’ve had so far to earn that precious spot among them.
It is my opinion that youngest children have it the best and the worst. They’re given most everything they ask for, by tired parents who’ve used the majority of their energy and strictness on their first few children and as a result are treated like delicate, fussy ten-year-olds well into their teens and beyond.
But as much as I rage at my mother, who still grabs my arm when we cross especially busy streets, or my father, who still peers at the back of my neck to check if it’s clean every time I come home, I have a feeling that it’s hard for them to see I’m not a child anymore, almost as hard as it is for me to prove it.
I dream of being the one who brings home the extra paper towels, the one who takes the lead on a day project building an Ikea desk or painting a room, the one at the head of the table at a family reunion, with my own chair and my own glass of wine. I dream of some distant future, in which my family really trusts that I’ll come home right at 5, that I’ll be able to pack by myself without forgetting a computer cord or a pair of pants. Pipe dreams, now that I think of it, but most days, they are what keep me hopeful.
But until then, I’ll be in the kitchen, cutting my cousin’s steak for him.
Jinwoo Chong is a rising junior in the College. Party of Four appears every other Monday.
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