family / growing up / identity

kiki with fire in her belly

My youngest sister is named Angelina, but we call her Kiki. Angelina and Savannah were foster kids in our family for about four years before we actually adopted them, so by the time they became legal members of the family, it was too late to change their names without causing more identity crisis than necessary. We swapped in different middle names (Angelina had been Angelina Joleen, no joke), but that was it. However. A couple years ago, I went home for a visit, and upon my arrival, my parents called “Kiki” downstairs to greet me. There are a dozen different nicknames you could derive from the name Angelina, but Kiki is not one of them. I asked my dad what prompted the new name. “I like it. And it fits her. You don’t mind, do you, Keeks?” She shrugged.*

She is Angie, she is Lina, but mostly she is Kiki.

I’m a big fan of all my siblings, and I have grown in love for my family as I have aged, but during certain periods, it was painful to go home. When my dad was unemployed. When I didn’t call myself a Christian and my mom thought she’d failed as a mother. When my parents were deciding if they’d adopt the girls or not. And even now, as they live in transition, with Eli in Sheboygan and the rest of the kids in Ripon, and all of them residing in the undecorated, semi-furnished apartment above Zuzaks’ Restaurant, home is not the wondrous mecca I can sometimes make it out to be. I doubt they’ll have a Christmas tree.

But our dysfunction aside, I adore them. And my siblings, especially the younger ones, fascinate me. Sav and Kiki are still so young – their personalities not yet cemented. “Who will they become?” I asked my mom when I was last home. “When did you know that I’d be the person I am? When did you know that Holly would be so good? When was it clear that Eli would be so snarky? Did anything in our childhood years hint at certain personhoods we’d later embody?”

Everyone begins as a child, and then they become who they are, and I don’t understand how it happens.

The other day I subbed for an elementary school music class. All I really had to do was make them sing Christmas songs and pop in a few scenes from Sound of Music. I also had to supervise recess. And as I watched the first- and second-graders get into tiffs and play pretend and chase each other, I nearly cried with awe. “I was a child once, too.” **

I generally don’t like little kids, but of course I like my siblings. My siblings are extensions of me, sort of, maybe. I don’t think they are ME, but they will be players in my existence as long as I continue to exist. Even with distance and time and inevitable clashings of in-laws and disappointment over life choices, we will be bound to each other. We are all the products of Liz and Big John, of small-town Wisconsin, of McDonald’s on Christmas Eve.

I wanted to write about Kiki because she is the baby, and she is still young, and in this way she is the most pure. Not pure, but untainted. She and Sav started at a new school this year, in Ripon, and I recently asked her if she’d made any friends. “Nope,” she said. I wanted to cry. “I’m so sorry, baby,” I said. “It’s okay,” she told me. “They’re all jerks. I don’t want to be friends with them anyway.” Kiki is so content being herself. Sav has made more friends than she can keep track of, and Mom is sure she’ll end up doing dance and cheerleading in high school (very big steps away from the activities Hol and I engaged in), but Kiki is laying low and still without insecurity.

Two summers ago, I took Sav and Kiki for a bike ride. Not far into the ride, Sav fell and scraped her leg, and we had to walk back to the house to get her some bandages and Neosporin. She cried when it happened, and then, of course, when we were back at the house and she was able to examine the damage. Angelina was very sympathetic, and she stroked Sav’s arm and asked if she wanted a cold pack (the go-to answer for ailment in our house). I was impressed by the sisterly concern. I told Sav to cool down for a few minutes and then we’d reassess if we would make another bike ride attempt.

In the meantime, I went to the kitchen to wash some dishes. But I was soon interrupted by crying. Not Sav’s crying – Kiki’s crying.

“Now, what’s wrong with you?” I asked. Through her tears, Kiki choked out, “She says that her leg still hurts so she doesn’t want to go for the bike ride and I’m so mad at her because I really want to go for a bike ride!” I laughed at Angelina then, and I also brought her into my arms for a hug, because her selfishness was so raw and so unhidden. She cared about her sister’s injury only insofar as it affected her. Maybe all people are like that at their core, but it’s generally not socially acceptable, and we learn to mask it or downplay it or sometimes even move away from it. As Kiki’s sobs softened and she rubbed her damp cheeks against my chest, I thought, “Maybe she is the most real of any of us.”

Kiki is earnest. I do not know if this is a quality that will remain with her as she grows out of her child-being. Kiki asked my mom if she could get her hair cut so she wouldn’t have to brush through her tangles anymore. Kiki wrote a song about our two dead gerbils and played it on my old guitar. Kiki loves Jesus, and she loves dogs, and for months and months her default position was elbows bent, hands flopped down like paws. She panted. She growled. Her teacher called to complain about the dog-like behaviors in class. One time one of Kiki’s classmates approached Mom when she was helping serve hot lunch. “Angelina says she’s half-dog. Is that true?” Mom shrugged. “She acts like a dog, doesn’t she?”***

Kiki loves the Three Stooges. Sav has started to watch shows on the Disney channel like “Good Luck, Charlie,” and Keeks has no patience for them. Sav is already moving towards drama, clothes, the collecting of friends; she may end up being the most typical teenager our family will get. But Keeks has remained unaffected thus far. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said she wanted to move to New York and take care of all the stray dogs. She doesn’t want to be a dancer, a rock star, an astronaut, or the president. She wants to take care of the dirty street dogs. “They’re not just rangy mutts,” she told me.

I wouldn’t say I’m a worrisome person by nature, but I do worry about my family. Holly getting married, Eli going to college, Jake fitting in at high school, Sav wanting to be Miley Cyrus. But with Keeks, I don’t worry so much. She’s feisty. And maybe time will change her – I don’t know the process of personality development – but if she becomes anyone like the person she is now, she will not be a woman who stands helplessly when she sees injustice. She will not be a woman who desires only to please. She will not be a woman who allows herself to be taken advantage of.****

The name “Angelina” means little angel. Our Angelina is a cute kid, but she really only looks angelic when she’s asleep.

So we call her Kiki.

Kiki will inherit the earth.


*Both of these actions – my dad deciding to call Angelina a completely new name and giving zero consideration to any identity turmoil it may one day cause her, and Angelina’s ambivalent acceptance of something so weighty as her name – are so telling of who they are as people. I love it.
**You’d think such a heartfelt moment would make me like little kids more. But subbing that day cemented the fact that I do not. Even if I’m just watching “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” four times.
***Also a very characteristic response from my mother.
****My mother informed me that Keeks recently got in a scuffle on the school bus. Apparently, she’d been defending the underdog. Miles away, I beamed with pride.

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2 thoughts on “kiki with fire in her belly

  1. I was really impressed with Angelina’s maturity on Thanksgiving (vs other holidays we’ve been together). For the first time she seemed more chill, less like she needed everyone to be looking at her to be enjoying things. I actually had a weird moment realizing what it must have been like for our older cousins and even the aunts and uncles when I was little (I was so obnoxious, and for a long time I didn’t think some of our family liked me very much). I realized that it’s just part of being a kid. It’s part of the learning and growing process. And I’m really glad to know where Kiki comes from, because that’s always confused me. Even though the LGs can be exhausting, it’s fun to watch their energy and see how they view the world.

  2. I care for people’s suffering and at the same time I am mad that because I am called to love people, to sacrifice, it means that me reaching out and caring for their suffering will make me go without seeing my personal desires come to pass.

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