Grown-ups say a lot of things to children. Mostly they make decisions, give orders, and plead for their sanity with statements like, “Not now” and “Put that down!” and “Will you please be quiet? I can’t hear myself think!” Such clear interaction allows the child to grasp the intended meaning quickly and move on to the next activity. But sometimes a grown-up will say something that causes a young person to waste a tremendous amount of time trying to make sense out of what he heard. And sometimes what the child heard is completely baffling.
I don’t remember being irritable or difficult when I was a little boy. But my memory may be faulty, because for some reason my mother had a habit of asking me, “Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” Now most kids probably understood what that expression implied. I wasn’t one of them. The question paralyzed me. No one had ever explained that there was a wrong side. Or if they did, I missed the explanation entirely, perhaps lost in thought about what Fred and Wilma Flintstone were going to name their new baby. Adding to the confusion was the fact that my bed was against the wall. There was only one side where I could have gotten up. But logical thinking was not my friend in those days, and so I spent months — maybe years — wondering which step in my morning routine was causing the problem. Even now, if someone asks me if I got up on the wrong side of the bed, I feel compelled to answer, and not with complete certainty: “No. I don’t think so.”
Some things grown-ups say, of course, are meant to be unclear. “Maybe” means “No,” but is leavened with a trace of hope, softening the blow for the child and providing the adult with a way to look temporarily reasonable. If I asked for a new toy or twenty-five cents for a comic book, my parents would often respond with that universal and maddening reply, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Again, the meaning was no doubt obvious to most kids, but for me they might as well have answered, “A comet is made of ice and dirt.” Or, “Giraffes almost never wear socks.” Then again, if their intent was to throw me off track long enough to forget about the desired item, it always worked.
Refuge, for me, was a trip up to the third floor, where my grandmother lived. I don’t know if she was capable of harsh words. In her native Italian she may have been the most sarcastic person who ever lived, but I never sensed that tone in her voice or felt the sting of a careless reply. Her broken English made her sound as though she were struggling to say exactly what she meant, and almost always, what she meant to say seemed to be patient and kind, and what I needed to hear.
My father admonished me to “never answer a question with a question.” So if he asked, “Did you tie your brother to the radiator?” and I said, “Why do you want to know?” he would get pretty annoyed. Yet, if I asked him something, like “Can we go to Yankee Stadium this summer?” he might say, “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” Such a question, he knew, would keep me quiet for hours as I pondered this mysterious place on the other side of the world where people were apparently debating with themselves about whether to buy some tea or go to the ballgame.
Tears were often met with this ambiguous warning from my mother: “Keep crying. I’ll give you something to cry about.” My immediate thought was that I already had something to cry about. Did she mean something new that I could save and use at a later time? It almost seemed like an attractive offer.
When I did something especially annoying, she would say, “Do you want to get your head handed to you?” This was another remark that worked wonders on my behavior because I would launch into an imaginary scene in which I was standing, headless, in my room. There would be a knock at the door and my mother would come in, return my head to me, and leave. Always she would first place my head onto the bed, then position my hands, palms up and close together. She would have to do this because my body had no head and couldn’t see what was happening, and of course wouldn’t know to hold out its hands, or where. The scene always ended that way. I guess I couldn’t imagine what was to be done next. What do you do right after someone has handed you your head? I’ve never been able to figure it out, and have pretty much stopped trying.
There were a lot of occasions when I was just mildly irritating. If my mother was busy with something, like pouring melted wax on top of the homemade grape jelly she’d just put into jars, and I wandered in and asked her for the thirty-seventh time what the wax was for, she’d have a line ready. Usually, it was, “Stay out of my hair!” Once again, and I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect my parents had learned that these comments were guaranteed to stop me dead in my tracks. What I’d said or done had nothing at all to do with my mother’s hair. I couldn’t have reached her hair if I wanted to.
At other times she’d tell me to “stop being a pill.” Hearing this familiar phrase, I’d always picture myself as a giant aspirin tablet with legs, seated on the couch and trying hopelessly to stay out of trouble. Or she’d resort to “Go see where you gotta go,” a New York expression that dismisses the other person without really saying anything. Nevertheless, I’d take it literally and leave, because I knew where I had to go. I’d climb the stairs and knock on my grandmother’s door. She’d smile when she saw it was me, and gesture for me to come in. As we headed for the kitchen I’d explain to her that my mother was mad because I was in her hair, or because I was being a pill, or because I got up on the wrong side of the bed again. And my grandmother would nod, thinking carefully about what I was saying, though probably not understanding a word of it. Then she’d tell me to sit down, and in that patiently kind, broken English of hers, she’d ask me if I wanted some ice cream, and if I’d like to stay awhile and watch television with her. And that, of course, was exactly what I needed to hear.
For a great selection of reproducible cartoons, visit Ron Leishman’s website.