The Eldest Daughter

Maggie McManus


I’m 20 years old. It’s the end of the world and my mother sends me a text, telling me I don’t love her because I’m living on my own. “Your brother misses you. You’re being selfish. This isn’t who I raised you to be.” I ignore the text and think how she didn’t raise me at all. In the morning I receive another text, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I hope you’re doing well. I’ll see you soon.” I reply, “No worries. Love you. See you Friday.”

I’m 19 years old. My brother, 14, is “graduating” from 8th grade. My mother is drinking wine with a splash of vodka. It’s a virtual graduation, a result of the pandemic. She watches my brother’s eyes light up as his name glows on the screen. She beams. She pulls me aside in the kitchen, her words slow and messy,  “You’ve raised a wonderful son.”

I’m 18 years old. It’s spring break. My mother and I are taking a weekend trip to New Mexico. I smile in an attempt to hold back tears as, drink in hand, she tells me, “I’ve never thought of you as a daughter. You’re like my friend, a sister. You are mature, and you take care of me. You take care of your brother and sister. You’re a great little mama.”

I’m 16 years old. I’m applying to university. My mother decides I need to stay close, says she doesn’t know what she’ll do if I’m too far—my brother needs me. I’m a good student and president of my class. I apply only to in-state schools. I choose a school 22 miles away; I need to stay close.

I’m 13 years old. She’s unable to stand up straight when she gets home. He retreats into his computer; there’s nothing to face in there. I’m just a kid, but I pull him closer. I don’t want to see him lose his youth.

I’m 12 years old. She is usually out somewhere, with someone. I make them, 7 and 10, dinner and he calls me “Mom” then corrects himself.

I’m 11 years old. She’s always passed out on the couch these days. He, 6, won’t go to bed without my lullabies.

I’m 10 years old. They sit us at the table. It’s the day after Christmas and our bright red and green decorations remain on the tree, and the tinsel still wraps the banister. It’s a merry time, and our hearts are filled with love. Dad grows serious, and Mom won’t meet my eyes. “We’ve been meaning to tell you this for some time now, but we weren’t sure how,” his voice is low and monotonous, “Your mother and I are going to separate. She has found an apartment nearby. You’ll be splitting time, half here, half there.” I already knew this, of course. My mom had told me weeks earlier. She had brought me to our new home. “You’re the little mama, baby. You’ve always been so strong.”

I’m 9 years old. It’s the first time I hear them fighting, though I’m sure it’s not the first time they’ve fought. My brother, 4, sits on my lap. My sister, 7, hides behind me. We hear a plate shatter and some muffled words spoken in anger. “Do you think they’re going to get a divorce?” my sister asks. “No,” I shake my head and look away from her, “No, of course not.”

I’m 7 years old. Our family leaves home and moves across the country. Colorado is beautiful, but the snow on Easter is different from Atlanta’s perpetual warmth. I smile anyway, and try to find the eggs in the snow; I’m grateful for the bright pastels we’d painted them. My mom’s warm hug finds me shivering. “Thank you for always bringing us light.”

I’m 5 years old. Mommy announces we’ve got another on the way. A little brother! I can barely contain my excitement. My little sister, on the other hand, rolls her eyes. She’s three, and the center of the universe. Mom pulls me in tight and whispers, “You’re a great big sister.”


Maggie McManus is a graduate student at the University of Denver studying creative writing. Her work has been published previously in Hindsight Journal.




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