My family used to think I was mute. I’m not sure if it was a personal choice or if everyone else was just so loud I could never get a word in. Either way, I didn’t speak. I hardly made a sound for the rst few years of my life. When they took me to the doctor, he said I didn’t speak because someone else was always speaking for me. But that no, I was not mute.
Often, my mother spoke for me (and by that I mean, she never stopped talking). She talked to co workers, to grocery store clerks, to a friend of a friend of a friend, as if they were just another person she’d known her entire life. I guess in a way they were. She knew all kinds of people and talked to them all the same; she never knew a stranger.
Naturally, as I got older (those desperate teenage years) my lack of verbal communication led to somewhat of a road block between my mother and me. She couldn’t understand how when I met someone new, say an old friend of hers from high school, my shoes became more interesting than eye contact. I distinctly remember sitting in the passenger seat of her black SUV peering out the window as she scolded me for being so irrevocably shy.
“You have to speak up,” she’d tell me. “We’ve been over this and over this. It’s rude and people probably think you’re a bitch. It’s not acceptable anymore.”
I couldn’t argue with her. Partly because maybe she was right, maybe people did think I was a bitch. But also because if I responded I was almost positive she’d give me some terrifying glare, followed by a spew of loud curse words and then I’d burst into ames. Besides that, I knew she meant it in a loving kind of way. She was always afraid that I’d never nd my voice, that I was too tender and therefore would end up broken and taken advantage of. She wasn’t alone. I’m pretty sure everyone in my family thought I was too mousy a human-being to ever stick up for myself. My mother was just the only one to ever tell me off for being that way. She never would’ve survived the upbringing she’d had (one of racist remarks, poverty, and a broken family) if she was as shy as I was.
But still I remained unspoken. When my mother and I went to the grocery store I’d shuf e behind her sheepishly and when she spoke to the clerk checking us out, I’d hide behind her broad shoulders as she made conversation about the food she’d just bought and how her two sons ate groceries like the plague
of locusts in the book of Exodus. When we went to the mall she’d walk (my
mother’s version of walking being a very strategic, tornado path) through stores with me barely at her heels. And when she’d stop to speak with a sales asso- ciate, it’d turn into me pretending to search through racks of sweater dresses while she defended the long life of her only pair of jeans, which, if those jeans could be transformed into a tree, would have more rings than Elizabeth Taylor had husbands. Safe to say, as much as my mother wanted me to speak up, she made it all too easy for me to say absolutely nothing.
Until she lost her voice.
My mother had to have a tumor surgically removed from her thyroid. The tumor ended up being larger than expected and so the only way to remove it was by cutting her vocal cord. She didn’t say a word about it. It was probably the rst time she ever even somewhat understood how it felt to be the silent one. Safe to say she didn’t like the feeling.
Now my mother had absolutely no shield, no way of interacting with others or protecting herself. She was vulnerable and so I became her voice. I was the one ordering take out on the phone, telling the cashier that we’d be paying with debit, and that yes we’d like our receipt in the bag. Looking back, I realize how much fun I could’ve had acting as her voice; it was a feeding ground for a child with no money, her mother’s debit card and a voice barrier. Sadly, I was young and pure and didn’t quite understand the meaning of “seizing an opportuni- ty,” so apart from being the middleman during arid transactions, I still held no power over the situation.
After a time, though, my mother did begin to regain her voice, or at least a whisper (although it was over a year before she stopped needing me to trans- late her thoughts into sentences). I can’t say I loved talking for her. But there were a few times where, although I never admitted it, I enjoyed being the one to make small talk. On a trip to the mall, we had stopped in The Loft to look around. I was trying to convince my mom to try on a pair of jeans because she was in desperate need of a new pair, preferably ones made for women, when an associate came over.
“Can I help you ladies nd anything?” she asked.
I looked at my mother. Normally she would have responded with a polite “no thank you, we’re just perusing,” and continued to argue with me about the pants until I walked out of the store with her, defeated. This time, though, I was the one who had to speak up. I grinned slightly before looking back at the woman.
“Actually,” I said, “Yes you could.”
I continued to explain to the woman about how I was trying to nd a pair of jeans for my mother, about how the only pair she owned were older than me, had holes in places that jeans should not have holes, and that every woman needs a good pair of jeans. I ignored the daggers my mother’s eyes were throwing at my every word.
Now, it was my turn to speak.
Stonington, CT, BFA Writing