If there was one thing my parents were very good at - and they were very good at many things despite the dark memories I have been dissecting here and maybe one day I will start listing all their incredible skills and talents and actually begin to acknowledge and cherish their positive influence on my life (well, this sentence was easier than I thought but mostly theory) - they paved the straight and narrow road to academic success for their three children with a high degree of diligence. They really knew how to hold up the stereotype. Our future careers were set in stone, discussion was only possible on the minor details: doctor, lecturer, scientist, journalist (but only on a gifted scholarship) and, if all fails, maybe lawyer/judge/attorney. There was nothing unusual about this arrogant outlook in my extended family and at that time in general.
When my cousin (the oldest of our lot) had failed his university entrance exams for the second and final time, he was swiftly shoved into police training and it was never mentioned again. For many years, my mother maintained a complicated and time-consuming friendship with the owner of a local bookshop with a high standing specialising in the classics and sciences in preparation for the distant possibility of one or - godforbid - both of her daughters not obtaining sufficient grades for the appropriate chosen university courses. From time to time she would dig out the threat of sending us into the book selling trade should we prove to be not worthy of her dreams.
For an entire year, I actually believed that I was exceptionally gifted and super extra bright based on one 4-page story I had written at age 11 which so impressed my teacher (a great believer in doling out black or yellow stickers for good/bad behaviour and who graded the geometric borders he insisted had to be drawn on the outer edge of the pages in our exercise books) that he sent a note home asking for my parents to see him. My mother spent a fretful evening questioning me about possible misdemeanours and since I didn't have a clue, she was eventually convinced that I must have done something really bad. So she put on her high heels and her hoighty toighty airs only to discover that this pitiable young man thought her middle child had promise. Quite. And there my fate was sealed as far as my parents were concerned.
The teacher we got the following year got me off my high horse with a short and sharp little speech and I can still see her sitting on, yes on, the desk in front of me, one of her hands resting on my arm, and in her quiet voice readjusting my world view back to community standards: stop acting as if you were better than others, young lady, because you are not. And I shall be forever grateful for this experience.
But as far as my parents were concerned, there was no escape. Not for many years. And I did try.
And eventually I succeeded. Dramatically so.
One of the more interesting jobs I tried out was in a small factory that manufactured cardboard cylinders, from the hard stuff inside a toilet paper roll to fancy soap containers. At lunch time I would sit and wait for my hands to stop shaking from the machines. I loved the banter and the loud curses of my mostly male coworkers. The skin inside my nostrils started to bleed from the silicone that was used to soften the cardboard edges and in my final week I fainted at the glue assembly and got sacked. But by that time my parents were already way off my horizon. In fact, I had delivered the decisive blow (after opting out of a variety of first class degrees ranging from classics to psychology) when I announced that I had enrolled in teachers training, followed a couple of years later by my wish to become a midwife - which to their eminent relief was impossible at the time due to a shortage of places and my lack of practical experience (a first in Latin was unfortunately not an essential requirement).
So it was downhill all the way for me. And what a wonderful journey it has been to this day.
At my mother's funeral one of our old neighbours cried when she saw that I - then aged 41 - was in fact not the demented drug addled hippie drop-out responsible for my mother's innumerable sleepless nights and miserable days.