My mom loved to tell the story of the morning she came to get me from my crib when I was just ten months old, and I looked up at her and said, “I want one now.”
These were my first words.
Ya’ll, I’ve had four children, and I’m here to tell you that if my ten-month old spoke words to me – ANY actual words to me – I would freak the hell out.
This is not natural behavior for babies.
But my 21-years young mom didn’t really know any better, so she simply asked me what exactly I wanted “one” of and gave it to me.
I wanted a pacifier, by the way.
It was probably my way of saying “Get me the hell out of this crib,” too.
Cribs are a funny thing. They’re meant to be a space where we can place our most treasured humans and feel certain that they will be safe from harm.
But I’m guessing that to some children that barred bed is often less a safe space and more the prison cell it looks like.
That could explain the time I forced my toddler-sized head through those bars and got myself quite stuck, requiring the sawing of said bars in order to get me out.
Bless my mom. She had a LOT going on.
Imagine being 21 and married to a drunk, PLUS mother to a talking dare-devil baby.
That first baby-talking incident must have been the beginning of my sense for the utility of words, whereas the love that I eventually had for words and the almost compulsive need within me to use them to make my way in the world sparked not long after and certainly never left, even if the medium of expression perhaps changed now and then.
I was reading fluently by the time I was three.
No, I don’t think I was exceptionally smart.
I was certainly precocious.
And words just came easily to me.
In my first three years of life, my father dragged my mother and me with him across Mississippi and Tennessee, preaching in small churches but never staying long enough for the truth of his lifestyle to come out. My mom didn’t mind my chattiness. In fact, I think she relished it. It soothed her. I guess I wasn’t the only one who needed a pacifier while in a cage.
I think my father enjoyed my constant flow of words, too. I could charm the socks off the congregation of the church during the welcome dinner, allowing some grace to fall on whatever his state might be at the time – given that his “state” was usually somewhere between edgy and slightly inebriated to barely functional and totally sloshed.
I was pretty handy to have around.
When my brother came along, I became his “words.” For whatever reason, our parents couldn’t understand a word that came out of his mouth until he was about four, so until then they relied solely on me to interpret for him.
I remember one day he came running into the living room, babbling desperately to the bewildered adults there, who, of course, turned to me.
For the love.
And yes, I understood perfectly what he was saying and interpreted for them with as much condescension as my seven-year old self could muster, “He wants the clown mask in the top-left corner of his closet.”
As I grew, I became quite skilled at using my wordsmith superpowers to collaborate with my brother and masterfully distract mom from the reality of our situation. We were the perfect pair. Patton’s dry wit and my dripping sarcasm, along with her ability to take our good-natured, but unrelenting teasing made for constant entertainment in the midst of what was often otherwise a miserable existence – especially for her.
Distraction was good medicine, and words made that possible when not much else was available to us.
But here’s the thing about how words work in the home where the driving force is alcoholism.
You think they work, but they don’t.
Because even though I could wordsmith my way around and through many things, my words never changed my father.
And I had more power over him than anyone else in the house.
I’m not sure why that is.
He certainly had plenty of power over me as well.
But when I was older and dad was working more consistently, if I was with the family when we went out to eat, he asked to eat in the non-smoking section and didn’t order alcohol with his meal.
And he never smoked in the car when I was with him.
These were weird and small, but noticeable boundaries that he started observing when I was maybe ten.
I think my complaints, my obstinance, my unwillingness to just take it from him worked in these areas, insignificant as they were.
And honestly these small victories for me were defeating in many ways because power with great limitations is just… bondage.
It’s funny how I felt so strong about confronting him when it came to his smoking in the car or, later, in the house. I could argue with him for days about what smoking was doing to him. Eventually, by the time I was in college, I even got brave enough to hunt around the house and pull out all his hidden bottles of cheap liquor, pile them in the middle of the kitchen table, and prepare a speech meant to convince him to “finally” face the truth and admit that he was an alcoholic and needed help. My brother and I would do it together, and my body would fill with a very persuasive energy assuring me I had the upper hand this time around.
And it was a lie. Every time.
And the really upending part of this story is that it played on repeat.
For 38 years – until the day my father died.
Well, okay. I’ll cut myself some slack and say that I managed to stop believing my own lie a few months before he died, when I finally realized my words actually held no sway over my father.
Growing up a wordsmith child of an alcoholic makes for a complicated human. Although I am hard-wired to use words to make my way in the world, my childhood experience makes me reticent when futility lurks in the shadows.
And so when words are required to make progress say, in the realm of my own emotional and mental health, I can get quite stuck.
It’s hard to unlearn the things we are absolutely convinced of in childhood.
My brother’s middle child, Henry, who shows the kind of economical wit most grown men never achieve (Don’t tell him I said so. It’ll go straight to his head, and I just can’t have that.) likes to welcome my wordsmithing family to his Texas home with his charming freckle-faced smirk and a dripping with sarcasm Words, words, words to his mom.
The boy doesn’t yet appreciate what my voice can bring to the table.
And when it comes to the emotional work I’m needing to do, I’m not sure I do either.