There is a saying that “Silence is golden”. I have heard that phrase many times but could never really understand what it meant. As one of four children, and being reared in a European style family, silence was desired, but the need to be heard was way greater. How could silence be golden? True, gold was and is treasured, but I found that silence was more, well, deadly.
As I have mentioned, growing up in a semi-large family (3 other siblings) and having many, many, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, the sound of silence was actually deafening. When we went to the library to the study, I couldn’t focus. It was too quiet. I needed someone yelling or arguing. I needed the noise of a tv show or a radio show. To this day, even while at work, colleagues will ask me about what other people were talking about and I have no idea. I tune out to words around me. If it’s not involving me then it doesn’t concern me. Que sera sera. I do know that while growing up, quiet rooms meant evil times. Silence was deadly.
As mentioned, I grew up in a loud boisterous environment. This is why I laugh when visiting people with newborns and they request perfect silence from their guests. Really? Let that child hear the guffahs and the ruckuss and they will sleep through anything. Again, not my place (nor my children) and they can live on the edge of insanity trying to silence the world around them. Life with no noise was unnatural and in many ways debilitating as the only time there was silence was when….ugh…it’s a horror I can’t stand to think about! It was tramautizing, it was devastating, and it made all us children walk about in fear…my mother’s “silent” anger.
Yes, my mother had this “gift”. I call it a gift because she had it perfected, like a magician can perfect a disappearing act. My mother, the sweet woman who used to read me stories at night, the kind lady who used to bathe me and cuddle me. That same kind woman who loved to joke and tell tales would suddenly have this strange look in her eyes as she gazed upon her brood. No words were spoken. It was during these unspoken word times that we were terrified!
We would gather around the dinner table and seat ourselves in our designated positions. She would bring the pot of soup and place it on the table. My father would begin prayers to thank God for our day and for our food and then we would begin our utterly quiet mealtime. Well, on second thought, utterly quiet was difficult. My younger brother and I were always big goofs and had a hard time being serious during meals. We grew up in the generation of “beat your child into submission” so suppertime included many whacks with the wooden spoon. Although this sounds abusive (which it really is) we children ended up laughing more during suppertime (even with whacks) instead of being devasted. But I digress.
We children all knew the telltale signs when something was wrong. (Sort of like how we all knew my brother was coming home from University to visit if there was a marble cake cooling on the countertop). The most irrevocable proof that Mama was to be avoided was when…gosh it was horrible…when you would walk through that front door and see her wearing “The Red Sweater.” You would stand there bolted in place wondering if you should speak or try to run for your room before the verbal tirade would begin. It was each kid trying to save its own hide. If you were feeling generous, you could pre-warn the next person entering the home if she was out of earshot. It was like a spy network.
I remember the one day when I came through the door and yelled loudly, “I’m home!” To which Red Sweater Queen came yelling at me around the corner, “Are you trying to scare me to death? Why are you yelling!” With that she stomped away muttering about stupid, ignorant children. Ok, lesson learned. Next time a situation like that arose, I wandered around the house, quietly, searching for my mother’s whereabouts. I found her in the family room, watching television. I popped my head into the room and softly said, “Hi! I’m home.” With that, she jumped out of her skin and off the couch. Good thing she had that Red Sweater on! Once again, the error of my ways, were recited, “Are you trying to scare me to death? Why did you sneak up on me?” Exit Red Sweather Queen with comments of “damn children, they’re trying to kill me.”
You might think I am overexagerating, but the worst freak out days were those days that she had donned her magical evil Red Cape. Nothing could possibly be right with the world if she had that sweater on. We had lived through the barage of insults that only a mother could summon. She knew her children well and exactly what would emotionally scar them the most. Good on you Red Sweater Queen! We children learned to be extra aware of our surroundings when we saw red.
One day, we children managed to scurry out of the way in time. My father was not so lucky. He came home, late even, and there she morphed by the front door, eyes ablaze with the laser stare, the red sweater draped over her body. Yikes! We would become fatherless children! She was going to kill him! He put down his lunch pail and began untying his workboots. We watched as her nostrils flared and she took one deep breath; it was about to begin. “I just cleaned the house and you are dropping that filthy lunchbox on my clean floor. All I do is clean up after everyone and no one cares. Look at those boots. Filthly! You’re dirtying my carpet!” My father suddenly stood straight upright, looked her in the eye and yelled, “If I can’t put my boots on the floor or the carpet, where am I supposed to stand, or should I just stand on my head?” Oh no…he didn’t…by golly he did. It was a face-off. My mother, buttoned up her Red Sweater of death, crossed her arms and went upstairs to their bedroom. She did not come down to dinner that night. We did not see her when we were getting ready for bed. We were going to be children of divorce!
The next morning, she was at the kitchen counter preparing lunches for everyone. She silently cut the bread, added salami and cheese, wrapped each sandwich and put it in the designated lunch box. She said nothing. We said nothing. She was wearing her cape of evil; the Red Sweater. We were traumatized and worried, but there was nothing we could do. We had to wait until the Reign of the Sweater was over.
It took three days for that to finally happen. We had all miraculously survived. The verbal barages were much preferred to the gouging silence. That was the last of the great Red Sweater vows of silence. One time, we plotted on how we could steal that sweater and donate it to Goodwill or something, but who knew what kind of transformation would happen to the next owner. It just wouldn’t be fair. We thought of just hiding it, but thinking about touching it made our skin crawl. I recall the one day I was chilly and mama offered it to me for warmth. Did she want to kill me?
Years later, we children are all grown up and love telling revisionist historical stories of the Red Sweater. Everyone has a different story to tell. The stories, though based on much truth, could be a wee bit exaggerated. Only some. Most of them are, cross my heart, true. We actually told mama the one day about how she transformed when wearing that sweater. She didn’t believe us. We shared our tales and she laughed so hard she was crying. She actually did recall many of the incidents but had not realized she had been wearing the Red Sweater. It was great fun to laugh about it. Good family times!
I myself, do not have such a prized possession (possessed possession). I have a grey sweater that I used to wear a lot. I got it back when I was in Grade 8 and it still looks great! (“Shush…it does too!” Wiseguy and the kids don’t agree with me.) Oh well. It’s still in a drawer. I’m waiting to flabberghast my grandchildren with it. I brought it over to my mom’s house one day so we could laugh about it and reminisce. When she opened the door I suddenly remembered that I had an urgent appointment for a root canal that had to be done that minute. “What? Since when?” inquired my mother, as she buttoned up the Red Sweater.