Filling The Quiet


I come from a quiet family.

There was just my mom, my dad, and me. Even the dogs weren’t barkers.

Oh, we could get loud on occasion. Arguments that exploded like summer storms over inconsequential things, and rolled away just as quickly. Singing with off-key harmony while we did the dishes, to old songs like, “Red River Valley,” or newer ones, like whatever the Righteous Brothers or the Monkees had on the radio.

My mother came from an Italian family where the deeper you felt something, the louder you said it. And her family felt everything deeply.

My dad came from a family of Mississippi storytellers, their accents so thick you sometimes couldn’t hear the words they swallowed as they laughed their way through an outrageous tale.

Maybe because the gatherings with the extended families were always at high volume, our household was quiet. We were readers and talkers and lost-in-thoughters.

As an only child, I did have friends, but most of them didn’t understand a serious, bookish kid who used large words and wasn’t amused by their jokes about body parts. It was easier to play on my own with the friends in my mind who would always understand me.

Sometimes, it was too quiet and I needed to fill that void.

I filled the quiet with conversations with pretend friends. Don’t get me wrong; I knew they were pretend. But I would mother my Betsy Wetsy doll with tender talk, play school with bossy admonitions to invisible students, and battle spies or evil cowboys (I had found out I had Cherokee and Choctaw in me and that fired my pretend scenarios for years) with loud cries of “Watch out!” and “You’ll never get me!” as I darted behind the sofa to escape the bad guys.

To their credit, my parents never told me to sit down and shut up, although there was the occasional pained, “Why don’t you go outside and enjoy the beautiful day? And don’t come back until lunch.”

Later, I entered adolescence with crushes on perfectly ordinary boys from school alternating with dreams of characters like James Bond circa Sean Connery. They would sweep me into their arms and kiss me. That was all they did because my imagination stopped there. Just kiss me. Oh, and talk to me. Endless conversations in my bedroom with these invisible men. Clever repartee with the movie men and smartass comebacks I never had the courage for with the real-life boys. Snappy dialogue with only one person doing both sides. Filling the silence of my shyness with boys who, at least in my fantasies, found me irresistible.

And, now?

I’ve pretty much grown out of needing to make my smartass comebacks solo, because I have the courage to make them in real time.

But the silence I fill now?

Conversations with my mama. Gone now for – how can this be? – five years. I fill in the quiet with what I imagine she would say.

“Good job on that one.”

“Your daughter has always been smart, but look how she’s growing up!”

“Don’t take your husband for granted. He’s a good one. Get back in there and apologize.”

And, most often?

“I love you. You’re going to be fine.”

Filling the quiet with conversations with my mama. What would Mama say? Imaginary and not even always voiced out loud. But pushing away too much quiet with a mother’s remembered voice.

Helen Mitternight is a former AP reporter and current freelancer living in downtown Charleston. She headed up public relations for the Humane Society of the...

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