I didn’t talk for most of my life. It was my mother’s fault. When I was little, she told me that I shouldn’t talk so much.
“Hush, Jenny,” she’d say, and she’d glare at me. “Nobody wants to hear you whining.”
I thought that I was a bad child. Mother was one of those women who always got her way. Other women in our neighborhood looked up to her—she was this single mother raising a daughter who seemed quiet and well-mannered, while they had husbands and couldn’t even get their child to cooperate about bedtimes.
Mother wasn’t all bad, she just had one major fault. When I was with her I was unsure and cautious, and I constantly worried that what I was doing wasn’t right. I’ve looked back at pictures from my childhood, and I was a pale girl, far too small for her age. I didn’t know it at the time, but the stress was bad for me.
Over the years, I learned that speaking didn’t get you anywhere. I talked less and less with each passing year, and eventually I just didn’t talk at all. Besides, my best—and only—friend, Caroline, did enough talking for the both of us. Caroline was loud and opinionated. I idolized her, I think, because she was everything I wasn’t. She said what she thought and didn’t care what other people thought. As the years went by, however, that was one thing that I didn’t envy about her. She didn’t have many friends because she tended to be harsh.
I spent more time at Caroline’s house than I did at my own. Her father was in pharmaceuticals, and he didn’t spend much time at home, so Caroline could relate to me a little about not having a father—not that she tried to at all. Despite that, I always felt welcome in Caroline’s house.
I think Caroline’s mother thought that I was a little slow. She always talked to me like I was the same age as Caroline’s brother, who was four years younger than us. I didn’t really mind, I suppose, because I can never remember thinking badly of Caroline’s mother. I thought that she was perfect, and I cared more for her than I did for my own mother.
I wasn’t slow, though. I know that for a fact. I got good grades in school. I was one of those quiet, mousy students who did her work and didn’t talk back to the teachers and won a lot of competitions. In seventh grade, my English teacher wanted me to enter a writing competition, and I almost did, but then I looked it up and found that if I won I would have to speak in front of a whole group of people, and I couldn’t do that, so I didn’t enter. I won all kinds of competitions that didn’t involve speaking.
I wasn’t competitive. I didn’t care about winning or prize money or any of that. I think, looking back at all of this, I was trying to prove to my mother that my actions were getting noticed. Not that my mother ever cared about any of that. She still told me, after I stopped talking, that I talked too much. I hated being around her. She made me feel small and weak.
After I went to college at UCLA, I was free of my mother physically, but I still felt her presence wherever I went. I didn’t make many friends, but I excelled in all of my classes and didn’t have a terrible experience. Still, my mother’s voice was a constant in my day-to-day life. I could never escape her, even after moving halfway across the country.
This past year, I found Caroline again. We had grown apart over college. She went to some college on the East Coast, so we didn’t really talk much during that time. Not that I would have talked to her anyways—I had a deathly fear of talking on the phone.
We met for coffee. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t like coffee, so I got a latte and set it on the table in front of me and didn’t once touch it. Caroline got a mocha, or something like that, and drank it and talked while I listened.
Eventually the conversation got back around to when we were growing up.
“You know, Jenny,” Caroline said, still talking a mile a minute. She always did that—spitting out sentences like she was going to die in a few minutes and had something dreadfully important to tell me—and it hadn’t gotten any less in the years since I had last seen her. “Your mother was abusive.”
“What?” In my mind, abusive was physical. Hitting someone, or sexually abusing them, or something like that.
“I’m taking a psychology class for my Master’s,” Caroline continued. “And we’re learning about mental abuse. Your mother made you feel like in order to be worthy of being her daughter or something, you needed to stop talking. Right?”
“Yes, but I don’t think it was—“
Caroline raised her hand, cutting me off. “Jenny, that’s completely mental abuse. She manipulated you. That’s not okay.”
I looked down at the checkered table and bit my lip. “Caroline, it doesn’t matter. That was when we were kids.”
“I bet it’s still affecting you today,” Caroline said. Why did she always have to be right? “And you still feel like you can’t say everything you want to, or something, and it’s all your mother’s fault.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” I looked Caroline dead in the eye, trying to prove that I was completely unaffected by my mother’s parenting, but on the inside, I was in a heap on the stained floor of the coffee shop, bawling my eyes out.
Caroline backed away from the topic, and went back to telling me some anecdote about her life back east. However, I was no longer interested in conversation.
Later that year, I went back to southern Ohio. I had to attend a conference with the office where I was working. I had grown up in southern Ohio with my mother. I didn’t feel any ties to that area at all, though; I felt anxious whenever I thought about the house where I grew up.
My mother wasn’t alive anymore. She died during my first year of college. I didn’t even know until I got a phone call from our next-door neighbor asking me if I was ever coming to clean her stuff out of our house. I asked around, and one of our other neighbors told me that she insisted on being cremated, so somebody dumped her ashes into Paint Creek.
When I went back to Ohio on a business trip, I visited Paint Creek, right where her ashes had been thrown in. It had taken more willpower than it should have to make the half hour drive to the creek, but I had made it. It was the middle of November, and it was cold. The air was crisp and clear. I stood on a stone bridge that spanned the creek and looked out into the distance. In my mind, I replayed the conversation with Caroline.
“Mother,” I spoke, and I heard her, in the back of my mind.
“Don’t speak, Jenny. People don’t want to hear you talk. It’s annoying.”
“Mother,” I said again, louder. I swallowed the bile that was rising up in my mouth. “I like to talk. And you can’t tell me what to do anymore.”
The wind paused its constant rustling for a moment, and then in a rush it all began again. I guess I thought that something tremendous would happen. That I would suddenly have some major realization. But nothing happened. I stood there, stone and water beneath me, trees and sky above me, and I stared into the swirling waters of the creek.
But then I felt a release. A weight lifted off of my shoulders and I breathed deeper than I ever had before. And a realization dawned upon me: all it had taken for me to be free of my mother was one sentence. Years of procrastination and denial had kept me from achieving my full potential as a person.
My childhood seemed like an ugly nightmare.
The air was crisp on my face, and I smiled at the red-gold leaves of the trees. My mother’s voice no longer danced around me, mingling with the sounds of the world. She was gone. Forever. All it had taken was one sentence.