When I was seven years old my father yelled at me for speaking to him too much.
I was a happy, bubbly, talkative child who, at seven, had only experienced a blessed existence. I was well taken care of and my family was around and intact. I loved school and learning and playing. I wasn’t aware that bad things happened. I hadn’t yet experienced loss and believed I was immortal. I carried my ever-curious, anything-can-happen attitude everywhere. And I sported my fiercest pair of rose-colored glasses.
Seven was the age when I looked in the bathroom mirror and experienced that magical moment of enlightenment as I realized I exist. I’ll never forget how I felt as I touched my face and examined my skin, really feeling it for the first time. I noticed the mechanics of my body and mind working together and wondered how it happened. I found living and breathing and thinking and the human body a marvel. That’s the most excited I’ve ever been in a bathroom. I wanted to tell someone. I wondered if anyone else had figured it out. I wanted to shout “I’m alive!” But I didn’t. I thought no one would understand. I feared they would toss me a blank stare and say, “That’s nice. Get the trashcan out of your room and empty it. Tomorrow is trash day.” But I wanted to scream and shout. It was the most amazing feeling. At that point, I thought life would always be like that.
Then my father told me to stop speaking to him and it chipped away at my young spirit.
Until we were old enough for school, Mom stayed home to take care of my little brother and me. And when Dad came home from work every day, my brother and I would sprint to the front door to greet him. Hugs. Kisses. He’d lift us up in the air. It was all very 50’s black-and-white sitcom-ish. And we’d all sit down to dinner as a family. I remember little about the conversations. I only remember the happy times.
Mom went back to work part-time in the evenings when we started school so we were home with Dad all night. I loved hanging out with Dad. If we weren’t out shopping he would be in the basement tinkering with his gadgets. Washers and dryers, or whatever mess he brought into the house. My little seven-year-old butt stayed down there with him. I entertained him with stories about second grade. How I loved kickball and hopscotch. My friends. My crushes. I can’t say he encouraged all that talking. He mostly said, “uh huh,” and grabbed my wrist to position my hand and his clamp light so he could see inside his gadget. And if listening to me ramble helped him see better, then I guess he thought it was a fair trade.
In all this, I was always the kid who lit up when I saw people I loved. Always. “Hi, Mommy!” “Hi, Daddy!” “Hi, Grandmother!”
The bedroom my brother and I grew up in was tiny. Sometimes our beds were bunked. Most times they were separate. It was the smallest room in the house, wide enough for twin beds and a worn, yellow Snoopy rug between. I’m not sure it was meant to be a room. It was more the house thoroughfare, with open doorways on both ends, running from the hallway to my parents’ bedroom on the other side. No one ever gave much thought to it being our room. My parents marched right through it on their way to the bathroom or living room or wherever. But every time someone came through, I smiled and said “hi” because I was happy to see them. And I was seven. I thought that was the norm.
On that night, I sat on my bed reading. Dad came through—back and forth and back again—I’m not sure how many times. Each time I looked up, smiled. “Hi, Daddy.”
His sudden eruption burned like hot lava. “You know, you don’t have to say hi every time you see me! You’ve said it every time I’ve walked through here tonight. How many times do you think you need to say it? Once is enough. You don’t have to keep saying it. I see you. I know you’re here. Stop speaking to me so much!”
So many emotions ran through me, my seven-year-old mind and spirit couldn’t process them all. I sat with my mouth open, staring at the back of his head as he went on his way to the bathroom. He didn’t give me a second thought. I didn’t cry. I wanted to because I was definitely hurt, but my mind told me not to show him that weakness. Did my dad seriously tell me he was sick of me speaking to him?
He got what he wanted. But it both ruined and established our relationship for the rest of my life. He was the first adult whom I loved to disappoint me. I stopped hanging out with him in the basement. I stopped wanting to go anywhere with him. My open, communicative-self shut down—at least with him. From then on I greeted him with “hello” or “how are you?” once a day. Basically, I stopped talking to him. I was no longer Daddy’s Little Girl. I don’t think he ever noticed the change in me. He was probably thankful I wasn’t in the basement yammering in his ear anymore.
Our relationship is fine. We’re cool. I couldn’t ask for a better father. He taught me how to ride a bike, fish and change the spark plugs in my first car. Because of him, I know that if a PCV valve doesn’t rattle it’s clogged. An oil change place will tell a woman the rattle means it’s broken, charge her for a new one and put her good one in someone else’s car. If they change it at all. For years he drove me from basketball practices to piano lessons. And when I was ready, he taught me to drive so I could take myself. He waltzed with me when I was a debutante. We watched football together. And he talked much trash when we hit the bowling alley. But we never shared the close father/daughter bond that some of my friends had. And I know any potential for it was shattered that night.
Looking back now, I know what Dad meant. He was annoyed. I get that. But he yelled at me for speaking to him. I hadn’t yet reached the age where the crazy that people spewed would bounce off me. I was a seven-year-old sponge still soaking up my surroundings. What goes in a sponge never really comes out. With every use, more ick gets trapped inside. You have to be careful what you say to a child. Their psyche is fragile. Dad is responsible for the first chip in my innocence.
This isn’t something I’ve been thinking about or harboring my whole life. I’ve never even shared this story with anyone. I hadn’t thought about it in decades. But it came hurtling back in recent months because now Dad has dementia. He says “hi,” “how ya doin’?” and other countless greetings at least ten times a day—sometimes two minutes later. He can’t remember that we’ve already seen each other and spoken. And now when he’s said “hey, hon,” for the fifth time it takes me back to that night. The first time I remembered, I was pissed. Now it’s part of my life. I smile like I used to when I was seven because I love him and I’m glad for the moments he can speak and recognize me. I would never yell at him and tell him to stop. Because now he has the fragile psyche. And I have to be the parent.