“Do you love me?” Only 7 years old, I had just asked the cat, who purred, and now I felt brave enough to voice the words to my father, behind his newspaper and his pipe.
He frowned. “If you don’t know by now whether or not I love you, then the hell with you!” He snapped the paper back up to read. That told me almost everything I needed to know: That I was stupid and not to ask questions. That I was probably going to hell. But I still didn’t know if he loved me.
When precocious neighbor Beth called me a turd-face in our living room, I retorted, “I am not a turd-face!” My father, apoplectic, yelled at Beth and turned her out of the house, then pulled me into the bathroom and rubbed a bar of soap on my tongue. “Don’t let me catch you saying that again.”
So it went, for years, the call for silence, the muting of the voice. “Button your lip,” he’d yell. “Pipe down back there. And wipe that smile off your face.” I didn’t know that all families weren’t like this. And of course I didn’t know about my parents’ money struggles raising five kids, the stress of unhappy people who had married too soon, freighted with the baggage of their own bitter parents. I was a child. We aren’t born knowing. But we learn quickly. I learned to be, literally, speechless.
I moved out the day after I turned 18. But growing up didn’t stop the shushing. My mother took over, approving when I behaved, talking over me when I didn’t. “Well, anyway,” she’d say, and the subject turned. For years, I fought a battle between approval for my silence, or disapproval when I spoke my truth. Either way, I couldn’t win.
I married, then remarried, trying to get it right, seeking approbation for my choices. I went to daily Mass, I baptized my daughters, I baked bread and made jam, grew our own vegetables and homeschooled, made quilts and volunteered at school and church. I accepted children lovingly from God. I was accommodating and supportive and didn’t speak up about the drinking, the increasingly obvious homosexual behavior of my husband, the evidence of various addictions. I piped down and kept my lip buttoned. There were things one didn’t speak of, such as grief, such as horror about one’s mistakes. The fear of staying put and the fear of moving on. I started therapy, though, speaking about things for the first time: the molestations, the assault, how I had become the beard in our surface marriage—and the facade began to crumble.
As the marriage failed, my friends and family repeatedly asked not to hear about it, did not want to know, would not hear the truth. They hung up on me; I was selfish, must be having a midlife crisis, was abandoning him in his time of need, didn’t appreciate all the sacrifices he had made for me. And when the last thing happened, that awful, drunken New Year’s Eve heading into the new millennium, and I knew it was over, my husband struck back, telling people I was crazy, that I left him for a lover, that I had betrayed them all.
By not speaking up, I’d left the door open for his story, not mine. When we split, his prevailed, and I was erased—from photos, from the house; my garden weed-whacked to the roots, my possessions given away before I could claim them. Rootless, I lived in a cocoon state, mechanically going to work, driving home, watching a movie, going to sleep, for weeks on end, because I had become, it seemed, invisible. For 10 months there was silence from my family.
Then my father was turning 75 and decided he wanted me at his party. They drew straws, I suppose, and nominated my younger sister, the lawyer, to call me and tell me to come to the dinner—but I was not to speak of the divorce.
I went, and I behaved. I said hello but I didn’t make small talk. The video pans across the room, showing conversation, smiles, glasses and silverware clinking. I’m at the end of the long table, near the kids, who don’t know I’m a pariah. The camera pauses, lingers on my face. My nephew’s voice asks, “How are you, Aunt Julia?”
“I’m just sitting here, not causing any trouble,” I say, and stretch a dead smile to the camera. He pans away.
That was the last time I sat in silence. I started telling my stories after that, talking back, you might say. It pissed people off. But strangely enough, they also backed off. Once I started holding my territory, standing my ground, my mother didn’t try to shush me anymore. I kept talking, and my father didn’t talk over me. I found my feet, under my voice. I figured it out when I started speaking up.
Now I don’t need to ask who loves me. I know how to block and to mute. The words come in ink sometimes instead of sounds. But a lifetime of silencing is enough.
Julia Park Tracey is a journalist, blogger, and author of Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop and Tongues of Angels. Read more at www.JuliaParkTracey.com.