I talk too much.
I’m the kind of person who has to fill awkward silences. Who can’t tell a story without all the excruciating details. Who chats endlessly at base social gatherings, then wakes up the next morning, slaps her forehead and says, “Me and my big mouth.”
I’m not exactly sure why I’m this way, but considering that every human personality trait from narcissism to Oedipus Complex has its roots in childhood, I’m guessing that’s when it all started.
My father, who was shipped off to Fork Union Military School at the tender age of seven, was determined to be a more “hands-on” parent than his own. If my brother or I disobeyed my father, he simply selected from a variety of corporal punishments that were considered perfectly appropriate, if not advisable, in the 1970s. No one would have batted a powder-blue frosted eyelid back then if a parent gave his kid a whack on the tush for saying that she didn’t walk the dog because she was in the middle of a particularly riveting episode of Diff’rent Strokes, or if she called her brother a “ginormous butt-face” while in line at Mister Donut.
Our father also selected from the myriad of non-corporal punishments such as sitting at the table until you finish every last bite of that succotash, grounding for coming home twenty minutes after Mom rang the bell, and knocking on the neighbor’s door to confess that you dug for worms in her front lawn.
But there was one form of punishment that I considered worse than a lashing with my father’s infamous three-inch white vinyl belt.
It was the dreaded “Silent Treatment.”
When my father would refuse to acknowledge my presence for a period of hours or days, I had time to ponder the offense for which I was being punished, but also, I had plenty of time to feel regret for the thirty-seven other things I’d screwed up in the past. It was sheer agony.
I would have volunteered to walk barefoot over a bed of bumblebees, run through a thicket of thorn bushes or take a carrot peeler to my shins if only my father would just speak to me.
Now, as an adult, I can’t stand silence.
So, when my Navy husband and I stopped speaking to each other right before a 12-hour drive home from vacation last week, I found it particularly difficult. We had both had it. He’d had it with living with my extended family in a small North Carolina beach cottage for two weeks, and I’d had it with him for having had it.
We’d gone to bed angry the night before, backs to each other, vowing, “See how s/he likes this — I’m not going to say a word!” The next morning at 6 am, we hit the road in silence. The kids, oblivious to our temporary marital discord, slept soundly.
Through North Carolina, I sat, arms crossed, staring bitterly out the passenger’s side window. In Virginia, I kept quiet, comforting myself with a small neck pillow. In Maryland, I dozed off. In Delaware, I couldn’t specifically recall why we stopped talking to each other in the first place. In New Jersey, I just wanted us to be normal again.
“Are we going to get something to eat?” I croaked weakly, my vocal cords showing signs of atrophy after 6 hours of silence. “Yea, in just a few minutes,” he said, his soft tone indicating that he wanted normalcy too.
After hoagies off the Garden State Parkway, we climbed back into our luggage-laden minivan for the remainder of our trip home to Naval Station Newport. In New York, we chatted about the news a little bit. In Connecticut, we were quiet again, only because we were tired.
Finally in Rhode Island, it was clear that our Silent Treatment had been a blessing rather than a punishment. In the absence of words, we had time to have regrets, and to miss each other. And I learned that talking doesn’t always make things better.
Sometimes, silence is golden.