“faeunfo plane apifai banner fhaifpiaqef up adfaoienie adfoeuin sky dnofeahfgaqehhh”
That was my daughter’s first story to me when we were on our weekend getaway about a month ago. For the uninitiated, in her toddlerese, she was describing the plane she saw with a banner (the kind that advertises beer over a baseball game) in the sky. We saw one on our visit to the park the day before, and it left quite an impression on her. It’s a really short (and dare I say, unexciting?) story, really, but I marveled at two things. 1) She is telling me a story! 2) I understood her!
Her nouns have grown into narratives. And suddenly, bedtime stories are no longer just reading Curious George, a.k.a. “monkey book”, to her. Now that she finally goes to bed easily with me, I am able to read to her, and when we’re done, I ask her about her day, with prompts like “What did you do today?”, “Did you play with Trevor?” (a boy her age at daycare) and she replies, recounting her day in words she knows and filling in the rest with toddlerese but with such certainty that it’s unmistakably a story about her time spent away from us. Often times, I help guide her, and it becomes a tale of epic-for-toddler proportions.
You were on the slide and there was a bug?
“Yeah! ERenfa… Ben szjrnfuanf Yiayia …efienaue cherries….egegn”
You were playing with Ben and Yiayia (her caretaker) gave you cherries to eat, I see. Who else were you playing with?
“Maya...Trevor...” and she lists the rest of her playmates.
Little Miss is not quite Ray Bradbury, but she’s also not quite two. It amazes me that she is now able to answer my questions, and not merely repeating the words. I’d ask Who did we see yesterday? and she would respond with accuracy the names of the people with whom we met. She even knows the right pairs. When asked “Who is Uncle Rob with?” she’d say “Auntie Meissa” (Melissa) and it blows my mind. She is constantly observing, processing and regurgitating that sometimes I feel I can barely keep up.
Because of that we are able to share these moments, where she is excited to tell me about her day, where there is real communication. And I hope this continues because I want her to always feel comfortable to talk to me. Whether it’s her frustrations or her triumphs, I want her to be able to find words for them and usher them into listening ears, mine or someone else’s, because it’s important. And it’s healthy.
I came from a family of non-talkers, perhaps even a culture that doesn’t encourage communication of feelings and emotions. There’s a million and three topics of taboo that we all dance around and brush under the mats. And in this silence, for fear of judgment, shame and retribution, misery is born.
If you’ve followed my stories for awhile, you would’ve noticed that I don’t talk about my dad. That’s because he is no Father of the Year. In fact, he’s far from it. But as much as I resent him for being an absentee father, the shadow that he cast on my mother’s life was far bigger and more sinister. I witnessed the unraveling of their marriage, but bound by the implicit knowledge of silence, we didn’t speak of it.
And even though my mom’s own parents and siblings, and even her friends, may have known about my wayward dad, her false façade, as transparent as it was, was enough for everyone to look the other way. And my mom, who is a product of her time, believes that to talk about her unhappiness would be to air our dirty laundry in public, and that’s just unacceptable. It would be a shame upon herself and her family to leave a marriage, and so she stayed. It would be a shame if she admitted to his failings as a partner. And so she suffered. But how could they not see? At family gatherings, we were usually there without my dad. And it was always one flimsy excuse or another to explain his absence, until one day people stopped asking. They knew. But no one said anything.
And that makes me angry. At my mom’s inability to give her misery a voice, to break away when she should have. At my family – her siblings – for looking the other way because their silence makes them complicit. At a culture that values archaic traditions over its own people. Where fear of shame tethers you to your choices, good or bad. Where someone’s need for happiness is trumped by the culture’s need to establish social order. Divorce? Ridiculous. A family shame.
And that’s one of the reasons I left. One of the myriad reasons why I’m here and not there, where my family is. As much as I love them, I do not love the oppression of tradition. I am proud of my heritage but I will not place the preservation of ancient customs over the preservation of my self.
I vowed I will never let what happened to my mom happen to me. I will not let the unreasonable social and cultural constraints, unnecessary pressures and caustic judgment prevent me from living. I don’t ever want to feel trapped that way. I learned a lot from what my mother did in her life but in this instance, I learned from what she didn’t do by choosing the opposite.
Where she failed, I will succeed. Her suffering taught me. I will stand my ground if it feels right, even if I am one against the world. I have left an unhappy marriage when everyone thought I was crazy. And when people say things to hurt me or my family, I will not be silent. And I will not be silenced.
Because talking helps. The truth, while it may hurt, is more important than living a lie.
And here’s a truth I have danced around on this blog for awhile because of my culture’s residual effects on me: I am not married, contrary to what my own family believes. Because that is the only thing they want to believe, and so I didn’t correct them when we went to visit them this year. In their eyes, having a baby out of wedlock is wrong. It’s shameful.
But I’m not ashamed. I’m happy. And so very proud of my family and MY GUY, my not-husband, the love of my life, that I can’t stand being behind this wall of shame any longer. A marriage certificate or a blessing from the High Holy Whomever does not make our union stronger. We do. And I can tell you now with absolute, unequivocal certainty, it is strong.
It is wonderful. It is real.
So there you have it.
This voice, this speaking freely, is scary, but it’s also liberating. And I want the same for my daughter. I want her to always be able to speak her mind and share her experiences, especially with me. I would like for us to have the type of relationship I never had with my parents. I want our story to be different.
And so in her limited vocabulary and life experience she begins by describing her encounters with bugs and planes to me. Someday it will be more. Much, much more.
And I will be there to listen.