I come from a silent people.
Perhaps they preferred silence. Perhaps it was forced upon them. I suspect it was both. I suspect my grandparents — raised in the austere Midwest by grandparents raised in an austere Europe — had befriended silence, for in its presence their ideas were safe. Perhaps they pondered speaking their thoughts out loud. I suspect they knew better. Humility was more than the polite way to converse, it was a sign of worthiness, a moral obligation to value the whole more than the one.
I imagine my father’s mother, Cary, standing in the grass near the barn, stretching her mouth wide, hoping to shout her name so loud that the other 999 residents of Thorntown, Indiana, would hear her. I suspect she closed her mouth without a sound and went to feed the chickens like she’d been told. I imagine my mother’s father, Harold, stealing moments away from his desk job by hiding in his basement workshop, creating exquisite, useful objects from metal and wood. He never shared his creations with his neighbors in Jackson, Michigan. I suspect they were the sort to appreciate a game of bridge, a bit of gossip, and a lifetime’s fill of what was expected.
My father swallowed down his own words with the help of nightly gin. My mother dismissed her bold, bright paintings as a hobby. Their expectations for humble children may not have been enough to keep my siblings and I silent — given changing societal expectations — but the chaos created by my father’s alcoholism certainly did. I stopped singing the day my father wrapped his fingers around my neck because I’d woken him from his hangover. I was the “lost child,” the one who withdrew into my own fantasy world filled with strong female characters in magical adventures. I probably longed to share my world; I am certain that shame kept me silent.
I still found comfort in words, just not my own. As a young reader, I was drawn to magical tales of girls who could overcome their fears and find a place in the world. The books of Madeline L’Engle kept me riveted. As I grew older, I turned to the safety of words from real people who articulated what I could not. I covered a bulletin board in quotes: Emerson’s “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us” was my favorite, suspecting (but not comprehending) its wisdom.
I pinned up the words of civil rights leaders, feminists, world leaders. I posted a magazine image of a baby seal, its wet doe-eyes pleading with me to stop the hunters who bludgeoned them for their pristine white fur. I carried all those paper scraps to college, where I eschewed fiction classes for the more noble pursuit of journalism and political studies. I thought I had found my voice by pushing for social change. I became a newspaper reporter, and though I was decent at it, my skill wasn’t enough to compensate for my intrinsic lack of confidence, my genetic obligation to be humble, my core belief that my voice didn’t matter.
So that’s the story, and it is just a story. I’ve constructed it using the few facts I am allowed to know, and what I can remember myself. It is the story I’ve developed to make sense of what the silence hides. It is the story I must turn to when asked, “Why do you write?” Writing is not only deeply personal for me, it is illogical. Given my nature, writing should be the last profession on earth I would choose. It has angered and embarrassed me; I used to feel nauseous at the sight of my own byline in print.
For years, my relationship with writing was like a bad romance: I used it for money; I blamed it for not fulfilling me. Time and time again, I abandoned writing for more interesting passions. Travel became a regular lover. Writing would always be there when I returned, standing in baggage claim with that irksome grin that meant: “You know we’re meant to be together.”
I have told writing, as kindly as possible, to please leave me the hell alone, and it just nods and asks, “Need anything from the store?” When I moved to Chicago, I was accepted to the University of Chicago’s Public Policy program. I had it all planned: I would fill my brain with economic principals while lulling my newborn baby to sleep. My newborn baby turned blue hours after he was born, the terrifying sign of an in-utero stroke. His lengthy recovery eradicated my plans. I thought I would go crazy from the worry and tedium of motherhood, but guess who knocked on my door?
Writing, with a bottle of wine in one hand and a package of pacifiers in the other. My essay on Luc’s stroke was accepted by the first local publication I pitched; it’s also what landed me in a national magazine for the first time. These were my own words, my own gut-wrenching memories of loss and love. I smiled seeing my name in black ink, and bought fifteen copies.
I spent my early career writing about everything other than myself, and now I can’t write about much else. Here I am, wedged firmly in the sandwich years, my children’s rapid development forcing me to make sense of my past, and my parents’ slow demise pushing me to quit screwing around with the time I have left.
I am learning to embrace this romance with writing, though it demands too much of my time, my dwindling brain cells, my precious sleep. But I have welcomed it in just the same, given it a bed and it’s own reading light. Much of it will live here, on this website. It feels awkward, such a public display of affection. Would Grandma Cary avert her eyes?
It’s a necessary step, a spoken vow: To the power of story, mine and everyone else’s.