The Unbearable Weight of Silence by Gregory Knight Miskin

  1. Three years old. Nap time for Jeff and me, seventh and sixth of seven, in my parents’ bedroom, the never-finished garage on the blueprints. Bare studs, concrete floor, some stick-on blue gregshag carpet tiles curling at the corners, a sheet hung on a line forming a crude anteroom between the kitchen door and the bedroom.

Jeff and I are one person, known as The Boys, so rarely called by name it comes out jumbled as Grjeff or Jreg. The big kids say, “The Boys did it” to get themselves out of trouble without having to say a name.

My older brothers and sisters, CarrollLynnConnieNormSylvia, are in school but we are too young. Jeff is two with light brown curly hair. We are stripped to underwear for sleeping.

Mother is slim, curvy, petite, hazel eyes, and a cloud of wavy auburn hair. She wears a fake-satin pink nightgown with tiny little flowers along the collar. All of us under the covers of the white knotted bedspread, one boy to a side, we sing the Mother Song.

Who loves their Mother, who?

Who loves their Mother?

I do!

(repeat. often.)

After the singing Mother tells stories about our future selves, “One day, when you grow up big and tall, you will leave your Mother all alone. Mother will cry and be sad and alone.”

“No!” we insist.

“But you will! All boys do,” she says with sadness. “They forget about their Mother and all she did for them. They turn selfish and ungrateful.”

“We won’t! Never, mommy, never!”

“Promise? Promise you will always love mommy and do what she says and never leave her?” she pleads.

“Yes, mommy!” we shout together.

She suddenly cheers up. “That’s mommy’s good boys.” Another couple rounds of the Mother Song and then we sleep.

After nap time we all move into the dining room. Mother puts two large pillows on the floor next to the table, orders us to stay on the them and be quiet. I watch amazed as Mother’s tiny fingers hammer the keys of the cast-iron Royal. The clacking, dinging, ratcheting and zirrring develop into a rhythm.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Writing a play,” answers Mother without looking away from her work.

“Really? A play?” I ask, barely staying on the pillow.

“Yes, a play.”

“Is there a part for me?” There’s no need to say “us” because it is always us even when I say “me.”

“No, dear, there are no parts for three-year-old boys.”

“But you’re writing it yourself, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she answers with hesitation in her voice but not in her hands.

“Then you can write a part for me!” I don’t understand why she needs me to explain it. She moves her hands over the clacky machine and suddenly blank paper turns into parts in the play for me and Jeff. Easy!

“We’ll see,” she says.

The next day we take up the same places in the dining room. I try so hard, for so long, to be still, be quiet, leave Mother alone to make the clacking sounds with the typewriter.

The words just refuse to stay inside of me. “Did you write a part for me yet?”

“Not yet, dear,” she replies. Clack, clackity, clack-clack, ding.

“Does that mean you will?”

“We’ll see.”

So it goes for days, except she stops saying, “Not yet.”

One day I ask my question and Mother stops typing. She turns to me and says, “It’s just a small part, but yes. For both of you.” Jeff and I hug and dance and whoop and race until we wear ourselves out.

We go with Mother to rehearsals. As the director she is the first to arrive and she is the last to leave. Ten o’clock, eleven-thirty, Mother stays until she is done and we stay with her. But not actually with her. She is busy directing dozens of people so we roam the mostly dark empty church, poke into every corner.

I like it when the girls at rehearsal watch us. Teenage girls. Teenage girls who think we are the two cutest things ever. At dress rehearsal they stand us on a tabletop and crowd around making strange teenage-girl-sounds while admiring our costumes. I am in heaven.

Our part is brief but Mother knows how to work an audience. The stage is very dim, almost dark, except for a single small spotlight downstage right. From the wings upstage left I run on stage pretending to have something like a bug hidden in my cupped hands. Jeff chases me in a winding, looping pattern, wanting to see what I have. The gasps and awwws from the audience are loud but we never hesitate.

After a few circles we race to the spotlight and then sit cross-legged next to each other. I keep pulling my hands away as Jeff grabs at them until I finally let him have a peek. Some grownup comes along to shoo us off, stage right. The end.

After the show’s scheduled run, Mother started taking naps alone.

“Leave mommy alone, be quiet for mommy, just a little while, please,” she asked softly from the shrinking space between the door and the frame as though she herself were vanishing, slowly almost gently, closed clicked locked.

We had never been alone. No grown-ups. No other kids. Two tiny boys alone, the unbearable weight of silence punctuated by the house creaking groaning cracking, underscored by the crushing roar of airline traffic a thousand feet overhead. Just me and Jeff and the empty and the quiet and the noise.

We tried to be good. Tried to be quiet. Tried to not need but we did need and if we didn’t ask we’d be in trouble. I would be in trouble because I was older. Get yelled at, get a spanking. So I tried to ask.

My little round child-fist tapped at the cheap hollow pretend-wood door. “Mommy?”

No answer.

Knocked harder, hard as I could, dared. “Mommy?”

No answer.

Face down on the floor, whisper-shouted under the door. “Mommy?”

No answer.

I ran to the heating vent in the dining room. I put my face to the vent, cupped my hands around my mouth. “Mommy?”

No answer.

I stopped trying. We played quietly in the living room until Carroll came home from school.

Not many days later, Maria, a tiny young Swedish woman, came to the house. She sat with Mother on the forest green vinyl sofa embossed with a fern pattern that leaked stuffing from several tears. Mother had no need to call us to them. We were already glued to Maria.

Mother frowned and then spoke using her serious voice, “I need you to be brave for Mommy, can you do that? You’re going to stay with Maria for a little while. She’ll take care of you until Mommy feels better.”

We cheered, “Yay! Can we go now? Let’s go right now!” Then we zoomed around until Maria herded us to the door using a suitcase. Rushed hugs and kisses for Mother then we ran to Maria’s car without a backward glance.

The next morning I woke up in a large bed with crisp sheets and deep pillows, sunlight sneaking around actual curtains. Everything was still, quiet, except for kitchen sounds that seemed very far away. Jeff was already up so I stayed a moment longer in the hug of the warm blankets. This kind of alone felt different. I liked it.

When hunger drove me from the bed my feet sank into deep cream-colored carpet. I skipped down the stairs, across the cool slate entry, past the steady chick-chock of the grandfather clock, past the dining room with the long polished table and the telescope peeking out giant windows at Puget Sound, to the dazzlingly bright kitchen with yet another table where Jeff was sitting. Maria scurried around doing, it seemed, five things at once, smiling like the sun.

“Good morning, Greg! Would you like some pancakes?” she asked.

Wherever Maria’s tasks took her she magically found a way to move us, too, without our even being aware. Sometimes we helped but mostly we played or colored.

“Maria, look what I did!” answered with, “That’s lovely, Greg!” She never called us The Boys. When we took naps, the stories came from books.

A string of brilliantly happy days melted into six months.

One afternoon our suitcase stood by the front door, Maria’s smile gone. She loaded us into the car with barely a word. As we drove my stomach knotted itself around the forgotten memory of what came before Maria.

She led Jeff and me by the hand, not one of us wanting to be there, into the house overflowing with people, noise, dirt, mess. Five kids seemed to carry on ten different arguments at once.

Mother smiled at us. “I’m so glad to have my boys back home at last.”

I turned my face up to Maria, both of us with eyes watering, spoke very softly, “I don’t want to be here.”

Mother knelt next to me. “Don’t you want to come home? Mommy needs you. She needs her boys. Don’t you want to help Mommy feel better?”

I wanted to leave that second. Go back home with Maria. Wanted it more than anything in the world because that was home not this madhouse, but Mother’s words triggered something inside me. No matter how hard I tried, I could only say what Mother wanted me to say.

I looked down at my shoes. “I suppose.”

“That’s Mommy’s good boy.”

Maria picked me up. We clung to each other and cried. Then she was gone. I ran to the leaky green sofa, scampered up the back to the window sill behind it. My little hand banged against the glass. Maria covered her mouth with one hand as she ran to car.

Mother sat on the sofa, pulled me into her lap, tried to calm me but only made it worse. I sobbed through the words that came out too late, “I don’t want you. I want Maria.”

She stood up, placed me by her side, smoothed her skirt, then took me by the hand. “Time for a nap.”

 

*Gregory is a software engineer and amateur photographer, filmmaker, and writer. He is a native of the Seattle area and father of two beautiful and talented daughters.