Stop Talking

“Sometimes I feel like you don’t love me,” I said to my mother who was standing over the stove cooking supper.

Smack! The slap landed so quickly, it startled me.

“How dare you say that. Go to your room.”

Holding my stinging cheek, I walked away.

I guess I should’ve just kept my mouth shut. Why did that make her so angry? I stepped inside my bedroom, wanting to slam the door but not wanting to risk further wrath. I’ll show her, I won’t talk to her when she wants to talk to me again. I looked around my drab gray-green room thinking about how I was promised a pink room when we moved into this house. Another disappointment. I can’t stand her. She’ll regret it one day when I move away. She’ll wish she had been nicer to me.

I sat on my bed and picked up a piece of artwork I made at church camp that summer. It was the Lord’s Prayer sewn onto a beautiful piece of lace fabric outlined in ricrac. I gazed at the prayer cloth and admired my handiwork. It really was quite pretty.

I read the Lord’s Prayer and repeated, forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. But I didn’t want to forgive her. As I held the cloth and read the prayer, I gradually began to calm down. I even imagined Jesus sitting on the chair at the end of my bed, like my cousin Patti did when she came to visit. I knew Jesus understood me and that He saw my good heart. At least He loved me.

I was raised in a Mennonite family in Lancaster County, PA. “Amish Country.” I was seven years old, and my two brothers were twelve and fifteen. Ours was not a happy home. My parents were usually overwhelmed and grumpy. But we tried hard to be good Christians. Most times, we bickered the entire 25-minute ride to church, only to put on our happy faces once we reached its front door. We went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and to prayer meetings on Wednesday evenings. We had daily devotions at home and prayed before every meal. At bedtime, I knelt on the floor beside my bed, rested my elbows on the bed and with my palms pressed together, I said my prayers. Most nights I became sleepy too quickly and cut my prayers short, promising Jesus I’d pray longer the next night.

I went to a public school and most of my friends were not Mennonites, but they didn’t seem that different. There were a few things I wasn’t allowed to do such as go to a movie on a Sunday, or dance. I even dressed pretty much like them. I didn’t have to wear a covering because I wasn’t baptized yet, but my mother wore one every time we went to church. My grandmas and aunts wore them every day. One grandma even wore a caped dress.

I didn’t know too much about our church history or doctrine, but I knew that we were pacifists and if there was a war or a draft, my brothers would be conscientious objectors. But I was afraid of Communism and being sent to Siberia.

“If war is wrong, how can we make sure the Russians don’t capture us and send us to Siberia?” I wondered aloud.

“We just have to pray about it,” was my mother’s simplistic answer.

We were taught to live as Christ did, to always help others, especially those less fortunate than us. I knew it was a sin to have a lot of money because of that bible verse about it being easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. You can’t be clearer than that. And I had a sense that suffering was good. I don’t think I ever read that anywhere or heard anybody say that directly; it was a general feeling. Jesus suffered, and we were supposed to be like Him.

As I sat on my bed, I started thinking about how awful my mother had been to my dad at supper the night before. He was late getting home from work, and we had already started eating.

“Let’s play the quiet game…last one to talk, wins,” my middle brother suggested when I started to talk about my day at school.

I could hear dad fumbling with the back door before I saw him slowly step inside. I immediately recognized that look on his face, one I had seen several times before. Sad and embarrassed.

He took off his coat and joined us at the table. He told us that he had been fired but that it wasn’t his fault. It was never his fault, always an unfair firing. I didn’t know whose fault it was, nor did I understand the reasoning, but my heart broke for him. I thought he probably couldn’t help it, whatever he did or didn’t do to get fired. Many of the things he did around the house didn’t make sense to me. I assumed that happened at work, too.

“Paul, how could you get fired again? What is wrong with you?” Mother shouted as she started to get up from the table.

She was the head nurse at a local hospital and worked hard. She also had a disease called Ileitis and was frequently in pain. I knew his getting fired was hard on her, but I hated that she yelled at him so much.

I silently coaxed him to yell back at her. Come on, dad, say something, anything, please…

Nope, he couldn’t do it. He just sat there in a daze, slowly eating with that disoriented look in his eyes.

Mother had enough. She and my middle brother left the table and went to the living room to finish eating and to watch TV. My oldest brother went to his bedroom.

“I’ll stay, dad.” “Do you want to hear about my day at school?”


“I was outside at recess and…” I began,

“Stop talking.”

I had mistaken his silence for permission to share my day. We finished eating in silence and then I went to my bedroom.

So, I spent a lot of time in my room. When I was there, I didn’t have to worry about talking too much or being yelled at or teased. Often, I would pick up my Bible and read the New Testament and stories about Jesus. Jesus loved everyone – even those that the Pharisees said were unlovable — people with leprosy, prostitutes, and tax collectors. In my mind that meant He loved me too. He taught that life wasn’t about showing off how much you prayed or how well you followed the rules, rather it was about what was in your heart. He said to be kind even if someone didn’t treat you well. I knew Jesus didn’t think I deserved the treatment I was receiving, and I believed He would reward me for it one day. Like usual, after a little time in my room and thinking about how Jesus loved me, I felt a little better. When I was allowed to come out of my room, I gave everybody the silent treatment. Not that anyone noticed.

This was my life through Junior High. As an adult, I completely understand how difficult it was for my mother, and my dad. He had brain damage from a childhood accident and too many neurological deficits to be able to function at a high-level. The expectations put on him were literally impossible for him to meet. I think I knew there was something like that going on as a child, but I didn’t have the vocabulary and I wouldn’t have been permitted to talk about it anyway.

Years later, when I went to graduate school, I learned that as a child, I had turned Jesus into my “good object.” In Object-Relations Theory, Melanie Klein theorized that objects, including people, and the relationships we formed with them as children and how we internalized those relationships, had a lot to do with how we formed relationships throughout our lives. Fortunately for me, I perceived Jesus as someone who thought that I was great; therefore, I had an internal structure for viewing myself as having some positive worth, even though I was getting only negative feedback from my family. This isn’t to say that the negativity didn’t impact me. It has literally taken decades to unpack the affects but, thank you Jesus, I had some positive internal constructs too.

More years later, my Seattle psychoanalyst interpreted my talking a lot in childhood as my subconscious attempt to stay alive.

Around that same time, a good friend asked my oldest brother what I was like as a little girl,

“She was the only one who was alive in our family. The rest of us were dead inside.”

7 responses to “Stop Talking”

  1. It’s interesting to read more about your experiences growing up. It seems your mother was a victim of her circumstances and that’s probably why she was stricter. I was the opposite growing up and would very rarely speak and it’s actually something I’ve been unpacking in therapy too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment of my mother. It’s interesting how we each deal with our childhood situations in our own way. Sounds like therapy has been helpful for you too. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful and supportive response.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think Jesus helped you construct a positive self imagelle and also develop compassion and empathy. It was a poignant scene where you described how you told your dad you were staying with him at the table when the others got up and left. But when you began to try to make a connection and share about your day, he didn’t want to hear it.
    I like your choice of details which say a lot in few words, like: “Let’s play the quiet game…” And I like the way you don’t tell us about your father’s brain injury until after we meet your dad and hear him “fumbling with the back door”.
    You did a great job of showing us what it was like in your house where the message was, don’t talk. And the ending was wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

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