I was about 6 or 7 at the time. Even at that tender age, life was confusing to me. Excessively shy, I spoke to no one at school. That seemed to be all right with my classmates who couldn’t decide whether I was a boy or a girl…well, neither could I. They mostly ignored me. So, in short, schooldays were a trial. Nighttime, however, was different—sort of.
During the time that I was imprisoned in school, both Mom and Dad were at an apparently wonderful place called “work.” But come early evening, the clang of the front gate and the opening and closing of the front doors heralded the arrival of the evening ritual. A parent, usually my father, would be home.
Upon return from a hard day’s work in Candy Land, my dad would greet me, say goodnight to the babysitter/housekeeper, and head directly to the kitchen to start dinner, leaving me to blissfully continue watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or whatnot, and in “off” mode. Shortly thereafter, the second clanging signaled the return of Mom who called out a hearty “Hello” and retired upstairs to the kitchen for her much-earned post-work “decompression treats”—a Marlborough Light 100 and a cocktail (just like Don Draper!). I was still downstairs watching Willy from Philly but I could hear the talk talk talking begin. They would talk about their day, politics, international debt, the Twizzlers’ quarterly report, I don’t know what.
My parents are smart people. They were both professors. I‘m pretty sure I learned the alphabet from their various degrees and titles—A.B., B.A., J.D., LL.M., M.A., Ph.D., Dr., Esq. My father taught law and my mother taught biology and did neuroimmunological research (whatever that is). But they are also historians, mathematicians, political scientists, social scientists, religious historians, logicians, librarians, and all-around cultural aficionados, who are interested in everything (even the Twizzlers’ supply chain)…and it’s exhausting. They are the epitome of smart in my eyes, and it is harrowing to grow up amidst people of such smartosity (smartosity? Yeah, good word). My parents could and would seemingly talk about any subject in depth, and they were capable of what seemed to me to be astounding logical reasoning, assessment, and analysis. They spoke a different language, a version of English that not even Mr. Rogers spoke. So, the prospect of dinner and its accompanying table conversation was daunting.
Anyway, in the kitchen, as if they needed more nerd juice, they would be joined by The PBS Newshour correspondents MacNeil and Lehrer. In hindsight I’m proud that my family was so non-traditional that my dad would don the apron while my mom would get her Don on, though that was normal for me at the time. Oh boy though, while I was hearing their voices intermingled with MacNeil’s and Lehrer’s, my heartrate started to rise because I knew it was coming… my summons: “Dinner!”
At dinner, while they discoursed on everything from the physics of pinwheels to the philosophies of Plato (not to be confused with Play-Doh), I would play with my food, pretending my broccoli stalks were a bunch of little trees and I was a brontosaurus munching down the forest. Nom! Nom! Nom!
Their gift of gab and their cerebral fusion was advantageous to me because I didn’t have to say much of anything. They could get swept away in their own conversations, ones which always seemed to be in that foreign language and weren’t meant for child consumption anyway: GDP, GOP, GOD, it was all the same to me. At that very tender age, though, I thought I should be able to use the word republican (in a negative, but, of course, very objective way), but I only envisioned that this pelican-dinosaur hybrid had mighty beaks, talons, and a huge wingspan. It was handy for me that my parents gabbed on and on; it left me and my republican free to forage and roam in The Broccoli Forest.
But it was going to happen. There was inevitably going to be that question. It’s such a zinger that I have to screw up my courage even to write it down. Truth to tell, any question to me was disconcerting because the spotlight would turn towards me, and I hated the spotlight.
But the question was going to be asked. Here it comes now…………..
“HOW ARE YOU!?”
DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!
And now I’m yanked out of The Broccoli Forest and shoved into the interrogation chair.
Oy vey, “How are you?”—this three-worded question completely confounded and dumbfounded me. That I didn’t know how I was, couldn’t even begin to think how I was, made me feel that the most appropriate answer was, “Stupid,” which I didn’t want to admit. So I lied and responded monosyllabically, “Ok,” when what I meant to say was, “I’m a stupid little ball of death today, thank you for asking. Now leave me alone.” But I wasn’t that eloquent (nor polite enough to say thank you) and wouldn’t have been able to muster “little ball of death” at the time because I had no vocabulary for what I felt nor was I assertive enough to request being left alone. I’m not ok, I wasn’t ok, I never was ok, but how could I say that? How could I put that into words? How could I tell my parents?
Instead, when the conversation spotlight rounded on me, it went something like this:
Dad: And how are you doin’, kiddo?
Mom: How was school today?
Mom: Did anything in particular happen?
Me: Uh uh.
Dad: Did you do any art today?
Me: Uh huh. Draw.
Dad: What did you draw?
Me: Shapes and colors.
Mom: Do you like dinner tonight?
And here’s where I get to show my verbal acuity: “It’s better than stir fry.”
And so forth and so on until my parents gave up.
When I felt that the spotlight was about to shift in my direction, my emotional spikes immediately bristled. As the spotlight dejectedly faded away, those spikes relaxed, and the rest of me went back to playing in The Broccoli Forest.
My parents wanted to know of my wellbeing, and bless their huge hearts, they tried. They wanted to know what happened in school, how my day was, what I was studying, if I had made any friends (ha!)—stuff parents want to know about—but that was information I just couldn’t provide them. I would get angry with my parents for trying to Drano me, unclog me with all these questions to which I had no answer.
Sometimes at the dinner table, feeling overwhelmed, I would blow a fuse…gastrointestinally speaking. I would oftentimes get horrific stomachaches. In those cases, which were not what you’d call rare, I told my parents that my stomach was “stabby,” and then I would get up from my chair and get down on my spot on the Oriental rug underneath the dining room table where I gleefully curled up into a little ball of pain. I’m sure my parents were concerned (I do remember having to actually go to a gastroenterologist), but allowed me this puppy-like behavior recognizing, I guess, that I needed it.
Under the table, in fetal position, I would be oddly content (though in physical pain) listening to my parents’ continuing conversation, and I would be overwhelmingly comforted and feel as safe as I’ve ever felt. Just hearing them, being near them, and having their voices blurring together in the background was of the utmost comfort…when I know I was completely sheltered from the probing question spotlight. That I could just be near my parents and listen to their intonations and the timbre of their voices but not have to actually try and translate what they were saying gave me a feeling of utmost security and downright coziness. I loved my spot on that carpet because it was mindless, and for the most part, my only thoughts were on physical pain, which was much more manageable than mental pain.
 Actually, I thought it was just Mr. MacNeil Lehrer, and he was one big brainiac of a guy. He was a major figure in our household—like my parents’ Big Bird.
(Concluded December 13)