Silence Her

My father gave me sound advice when I was a child. “Never put in writing anything you don’t want published.” I wonder if he gave the same advice to my mother.

In the far corner of the closet, behind my mother-of-the-bride dress still in its protective bag, sits a cardboard box marked “Childhood Memories.” I carry it to my bed and pry open the four flaps, uncertain of what awaits me inside.

I discover Mother’s Day cards with poems copied from the chalkboard. A picture of a chubby fifth-grader with a flipped-up hairdo. A wrinkled green Girl Scout sash with five gold stars and troop number 2124. Official certificates with glowing ratings from piano competitions I entered starting at age nine despite my fear of being the center of attention.

A brown paper folder contains my report cards from first grade through high school. I pull out the “Pupil Progress Report” from 1961-1962, my first-grade year. It unfolds into three pages. Under each section, Mrs. Warren checked every box “Satisfactory.” I become absorbed in the amount of detail and the volume of feedback she has provided in her comments.

“Lori is outgrowing some of her earlier reticence and is doing nicely in oral work.” I read on. “Encourage her to retell to you the library books she is reading and the day’s story or poem. Do not talk down to her but rather use words new to her. This sort of thing as well as ‘Show and Tell’ give her practice in organizing her ideas and using her growing vocabulary. … Lori is reading in the second group and is doing very well and should move steadily ahead. … When Lori is fresh and does her writing early in the day, her papers are among the best in the room.”

Reading my teacher’s comments makes me giddy. Folding the report back up, I see my mother’s familiar handwriting on the last page.

Under the “Parent’s Comments” for the first reporting period, my mother has written, “When is ‘Show and Tell’ day? She is usually half-way out of the house when she remembers she needs something – hence no time to talk or plan things. We will encourage her to talk more – but she usually chatters constantly about nothing, and we try to silence her."

There are additional comments, but I can't see anything beyond we try to silence her.

On the first day in Mrs. Warren’s class, I had to go to the bathroom, but I couldn't bring myself to raise my hand and ask. As I stood reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I knew I should ask the teacher for permission to use the restroom, but I didn't want to draw attention to myself in the middle of the pledge. I stood with my hand on my heart, mouthing the words as I wet myself, the hot liquid tickling down my leg, praying no one noticed. When the pledge ended, I looked to the floor and saw a puddle at my feet. My classmates sat down, and I walked up to the teacher and whispered in her ear. She took my hand and walked me to the school nurse, who called my mother to take me home.

After my mother cleaned me up and changed my clothes, she folded a pair of clean underwear and stuck them in a thin, black, faux leather briefcase. She brought me back to school, whispered something to my teacher, and handed me the stiff-handled briefcase, so out of place in my small hand. I placed the briefcase on the floor, leaning against the legs of my desk, and sat down. For the rest of the school year, every time I glanced at the briefcase, with its business-like appearance, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. No other classmate had a conspicuous black briefcase sitting at their desk. I felt I was being punished too long. Thankfully, I never needed to use the contents of the briefcase.

I blink, breaking the spell of the memory, and look down at the report card again. I wonder what Mrs. Warren thought when she read my mother’s comment. “When is ‘Show and Tell’ day?” School had been in session for two and a half months when my mother wrote that. Did my teacher assume my mother was an overwhelmed first-time mother, unable even to keep track of Show and Tell day, instead of the veteran mother of three she actually was?

She usually chatters constantly about nothing, and we try to silence her. I read that sentence over and over. Something big percolates in my mind. My heartbeat quickens. Memories surface.

My mother’s face is inches from mine, nostrils flaring, pupils the size of pinheads. She's yelling.

“Be quiet!”

“Children are meant to be seen and not heard!”

“Shut up, or we’ll send you to an orphanage!”

I shove the memory aside. I notice still more written on that report card. A reply to my mother's comments from Mrs. Warren: “This chattering is normal after the new experience of all-day confinement and being held down to a routine.”

I close the report card. My initial exhilaration at uncovering a long-lost memento is gone.

I imagine Mrs. Warren had high hopes when she typed my report card. She probably meant well, but she had no way of knowing her words fell on deaf ears. She didn’t know my family.

My parents’ focus was never on me but always on my two older siblings who lived with Juvenile Diabetes, now referred to as Type 1 Diabetes. Before medical advances made diabetes management easier, every day was a struggle to keep them healthy and alive.

Our kitchen and bathrooms looked like a chemistry lab. My parents boiled glass syringes in a pot of boiling water and sharpened needles on a flat stone. They tested sugar levels by dropping a reagent tablet into a small test tube containing a few drops of urine mixed with water. The contents fizzled like a scientific experiment, and the resulting colors – from dark blue to orange – indicated the amount of sugar in the urine. My parents compared the color to a chart and gave my siblings insulin injections based on the test results. If my siblings blood sugars spiked dangerously high or low, my parents rushed them to the hospital in the wee hours of the night. I held my breath until they returned home.

I suspect my parents secretly wished they’d called it quits at two children. They had nothing left to give for their third. My mother had been a homemaker, staying home with her first two children. But when I reached school age, she returned to work full time, opting to pay my neighbor, Mrs. Sitka, $5 a week to watch me each day after school. I found solace in their home and, in time, I grew to love their fun-loving house with three happy children my age. I dreaded the moment when my parents got home from work and came to get me. I returned to a somber house clouded by illness and an older brother who loved nothing more than bullying me.

Mrs. Warren didn’t know this was the home I was born into.

My parents felt weighed down. They worked full time and drove my siblings to doctor’s appointments, the emergency room and picked up prescriptions. My mother hovered over my brother and my father hovered over my sister. No one hovered over me. My basic needs—food, clothing, shelter—were met, but anything beyond that became superfluous.

Preparing for “Show and Tell” day was simply not a matter of life or death.

Not ready to pack this away, I read the note again. “Lori is outgrowing some of her earlier reticence and is doing nicely in oral work.” Another memory percolates, this from my career in financial management. I stood at a podium, looking at forty or so top-level managers, all men, waiting for me to present the budget I’d worked long hours on, including weekends. Although I knew the details practically by heart, my hands trembled. My papers shook, my body shook, it even felt like the floor shook. My mouth, dry as sandpaper, had difficulty forming words. I mopped my brow, prayed for no questions from my audience, counted the seconds until I could sit down. Even though I knew every aspect of the budget inside and out —assumptions, methodology, numbers—I still wasn't confident. I felt at any time someone would find fault in my numbers. Questions from the audience felt like personal attacks, more barbed grilling than polite inquiry. Yet, surprisingly, despite my heightened anxiety, my answers satisfied the audience, and I received congratulations on my excellent presentation. I had survived. Back at my desk, I sunk into my chair, relieved to have finished my presentation without fainting, vomiting or my mind going blank. It wasn’t the only time I experienced speaking paralysis.

How much of it stemmed from my childhood? From my silencing?

I stare at the closed report card again. My impulse is to return it to the brown paper folder, take the cardboard box and shove it back into the closet. But if I bury this keepsake and its memories in my closet, am I burying a part of me?

In that moment, it’s as if my report card is speaking to me, like the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland, the ones with human heads, arms and legs. “Lori! Examine me carefully! Don’t put me back in the box!”

This report card is proof—proof of actions my mother has taken over the years to diminish me. Proof that many of the things from my childhood I preferred not to believe, actually happened.

I’d recently begun writing about my childhood memories after taking a memoir writing class, and most of my stories focused on the difficult relationship I've had with my mother. For years, I'd shared my feelings about my mother in my journals and with my therapists, but rarely beyond that. Often, when I tell someone about a painful remark my mother made, I am offered condolences and hugs, but some faces hold a faint look of disbelief. I want people to know these stories are not exaggerations; they’re based on a lifetime of cutting words that chiseled my soul even as her painful barbs vanished into thin air. In the same way my parents struggled to contain and control my siblings’ diabetes, I struggle with my intense feelings for my mother. Conveying those emotional scars feels impossible. How many times have I wished I had something—something more concrete than my memories—to validate my stories?

And there it is. Lying on my bed. A critical piece of paper. Legible proof. And in my own mother’s handwriting. “She usually chatters constantly about nothing, and we try to silence her.”

If I put this away, I’d be doing the same thing: silencing myself. I close my eyes and pray for wisdom, stamina, courage. I can almost hear the voices of my support system.

My mentor, whispers, “You can do it, Lori!”

My friend, after reading one of my pieces months ago, said, “Your voice isn’t being heard.”

Members of my writing group encourage me: “Keep telling your truth!"

My son said, “Thank you for sharing your story with me.”

I was silenced as a child, and my adult voice may be shaky, but I will not stop. My fingertips tingle. Still sitting on the bed, I reach for my laptop and start typing.

My father gave me sound advice as a child. “Never put in writing anything you don’t want published.” I didn’t follow his advice as much as I should have. But, I will now.


BIO:

Lori Lindstrom rekindled her love of writing after retiring from a thirty-year career in financial management. She is currently working on her memoir, which will include work published in bioStories, Potato Soup Journal, Discretionary Love, and Allium, A Journal of Poetry and Prose.

Lori can be found at https://lindstromwrites.com