"Things You Should Never, Ever, Ever Say to Your Children" by Elane Johnson

Elane Johnson

Elane Johnson

Elane Johnsons nonfiction has appeared in Brevity, Sonora Review, The Indianapolis Star, Indistar.com, The GNU and The East County Gazette; one of her scholarly papers was selected for The AWP Pedagogy Papers 2010. Elane, an adjunct instructor in Georgia, holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and suffers daily teeth gnashing and hair loss over her current project, a nonfiction chapbook.

Things You Should Never, Ever, Ever Say to Your Children


Chances are you're like me: you're a parent, or you've had one yourself. If you created your own offspring, you probably find her gifted, generous and gorgeous. You attend her soccer games and school plays and science fairs. You assist her with her homework, and hold back her hair when she vomits, and search three stores for her favorite shampoo. You drive a Volvo. You send Hallmark. You choose Jif. But whether you're the begotten or the begetter, you've no doubt learned the enormous potency of parental proclamations. Sticks and stones leave scars. Praise and laudation embolden. But the bounty of a well-worded plaudit can be irrevocably erased by a haphazardly flung reproach, and you can retract neither. So. You may wish to choose with care your descendant-directed decrees.

Say you have two lovely daughters, and the older one smashes the four-hundred-dollar, double-paned bay window by your front door with her Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 plastic replica. A simple That will come out of your allowance, young lady, will do-no matter how tempting the terms unbelievable, stupid, lame-brained, moronic and grounded-for-life may be. It's best not to speak while I will kill you reverberates around your cranium. Trust me. It turns out that a child's self-worth is more fragile and more important than glass.

Imagine this: you are an eleven-year-old chub-bucket of clumsiness. Your father-the yardstick of all your value and goodness-chauffeurs you to your initial gymnastics class. You dilly-dally in the doorway and trudge into the sweatshop only after a solid shove from Daddy, who demands that you stop biting your nails immediately. You gingerly remove your street clothes to reveal a blush leotard that cuts into the flesh around your upper thighs. You suck in your breath and hope that your belly no longer protrudes as rudely as it does in the bathroom mirror. Your armpits become a darker pink as you join the group of giggling Barbies, lithe and lean, who've taken tumbling together since they were three. The coach asks you to maneuver a cartwheel and-as he spots you- you kick him decidedly in the jaw on your way around. The coach scowls. Your classmates titter. Your father motions for you to come. “You're the fattest one out there,” he says, and you can feel his shame. Oh, darling. Let's cut this joint, he could have said. These chicks don't hold a candle to you. Or I can see you're uncomfortable. Are you sure you want to stay? So many things you dream he could've said. But never did you conceive, You're the fattest one out there.

In the upper echelons of things-you-should-not-say-to-your-child: Why can't you be more like your brother/sister/best friend/Obama? That insidious inquiry rankles a kid-an ordinary kid, a not-so-golden kid, like your friend Leslie Martin's brother, Brad-until he hurls himself across the dinner table on spaghetti night and stabs his twin brother, Jonathon, to death with a salad fork. Carping comparison of siblings can cost you all your children. The reaper or the penitentiary will swallow them whole. If you love one of your babies more than the other, keep it to yourself. Really. Even covert contrast is cruel and cancerous: “Here's my darling grandson,” spews your grandmother, introducing you and your brother to her neighbor. “And that's Elane,” she says, trailing away, her back to you, her arm linked through your sibling's. How is it that you are nothing but a footnote? Does this dismissal arouse in you the desire to plunge a sharp instrument into your brother? Or your grandmother? And more importantly, will the garden trowel do?

Perhaps you're more inclined to internal violence, though. When, for example, one cobalt day, you're riding shotgun in your mother's burgundy Cadillac, feeling fine, fondling the onyx velour seat, and your mother declares, “Well. Of course if I had the chance to do it all again, I never would've had children,” your immediate thought is not to wrench the steering wheel from your matriarch's manicured talons and swerve into the nearest magnolia. You don't even register the inherent reference to your brother. You simply recognize how unwarranted you are, how unnecessary. And you formulate ways to punish yourself for being such a nobody. I wish you'd never been born, is what she meant. And you agree.

And then, years and years later, after you have anklebiters of your own, after you hear yourself say, “Stop being so lazy,” to your ever-so-slightly-stout older daughter, Kristen, while you push her repeatedly down the street along your cul-de-sac, force her to exercise, dammit, stop sitting around, stuffing her face-after you notice her lips twist and her face dissolve in despair, you hate the ease with which you slipped on your mother's skin; donned your grandparents' demeanor; clothed yourself in your father's criticism. You're suddenly cemented to the asphalt, and voices swirl about you like an unexpected leaf storm.

But wait! There are murmurs in your memory that aren't all venom.

Eighteen years ago: That's my child, goddammit, your mother shrieks to the helicopter pilot when he won't let her aboard because his orders are to get you to the emergency room before you die of the head injury you'd just sustained in a jeep accident. Fourteen years ago: You should see my tough looking daughter! She's gorgeous, your father says to his girlfriend on the phone as you model your wedding dress for him. Your whole life: That's my grandbaby, your grandmother purrs to everyone who'll listen during intermission at every single pageant and show and play in which you've ever performed, because your grandparents never fail to drive the three-hour trip to be there for you. You're struck by the healing potency of those salves, those moments of acceptance and affection.

Those treasures are too few, though. Selfish. Fat. Irresponsible. Unattractive. Loud. Annoying. Not good enough. You never know when to stop, do you? These trumpeted condemnations roar like a cyclone through your spirit, splinter the splendid sounds of love into expendable debris. Do you truly want your own children to suffer that tempest?  

You stand there in that intersection of Autumn Trace Court and Peake Road, stand there letting the tape reel unwind and spill forth into the street all the vitriol of your upbringing, all the ugliness, heavy and acidic, that eroded the tenderness your family offered not often enough. And you step around the vomitous muck and grab your darling older daughter in your arms and kiss her face and tell her you're sorry. And you decide then and there to silence the echoes bounding from your soul, because you've learned. You've learned. What you say to your children can degrade or empower, so why not choose the latter? And, boy does that come in handy with the younger child. Later.

Here's what: If you are an ultra-conservative, Hell-fire spouting Bible thumper, stop your reading now. Make no mistake. If you're like me, you've had your share of showdowns with Al-Gore-loving-Democrats, and you swear to God that if you look under that butchered bowl cut on the nape of a certain female politician's neck, there will be three little important sixes. But you're no text-book Republican.  (Palin has great glasses, but that's about it.)

You know damned well there is no Hell except in fox holes and in psychiatric hospitals and behind closed doors where a man's hands or words crush a woman like a trash compactor. And you know that it makes no sense that a God who created puppies and pralines-and-cream ice cream and orgasms could orchestrate the burning for eternity of His children because they “sin”-who doesn't?-or because they don't tithe/contribute to the construction of gilded towers in His name, or because they don't bestow unconditional power on the men who claim to speak for Him while they rape little boys in the sacristy.

And you know that your little girl-your gifted, generous, gorgeous daughter-is not going to burn in Hell for who she is.  She'll probably suffer a bit from the bigotry of those Bible-pounders, but what you choose to say to her on one epochal occasion can be her salvation.

Think about this: You're watching ER one Thursday evening, and it's not an inspiring episode. Of course that's redundant in the final season, but let's not quibble. At the very least, you're trying to enjoy John Stamos when your fifteen-year-old font of fabulousness-the child whose long, luxurious, naturally curly hair beckons strangers' fingers into it; the child whose hilarious mug howls from the middle school yearbook under the “Funniest Girl in the School” heading; the child who lobbied the high school guidance department last year to be accepted into Honors English and who completed all the course work over the summer break “just in case” she got in-and she did; the child who is so wildly popular that when you take off work to have lunch with her in the school cafeteria on her special day, you're astonished to see the entire room, a mass of hundreds of students pouring towards her like one long, building, ocean wave as they gather to sing “Happy Birthday”; the child who marched into Burger King at fourteen and asserted her way into a weekend job, a job that's required her to slide out of the covers every Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 AM ever since; the child with whom you laugh until you pee, whose hugs make things right, without whom you can't imagine life-your daughter, Alexis, who's clutching a pillow like a life-preserver, mumbles, “I don't want to do this.”

“Do what, sweetie,” you say, muting the television's noise.

“I have something to tell you, but I don't want to,” she directs into the cushion.

“Huh. You've always been able to tell me anything. You know that.”

“Not this.”

“What. You're pregnant?” You snort a little laugh. “I mean, I would be worried for you, but it wouldn't be the end of the world.” You stare at your daughter's head, buried now. “Darling? Just tell me.” You wait. “Okay, you've killed someone and the corpse is in the backyard?” Alexis picks up her head and shines her I can't believe you're such a dumb-ass, Mom look at you. “Well. You won't help me here,” you say.

“I know you're not going to be disappointed or anything, and you'll understand. It's just…” She founders, and you desperately wish to toss her a lifeline.

“Um. Let's see. You really are gay?” This has been a running joke in your family all her life. On her father's side, there are four gay women; and Alexis, a tumultuous tomboy until recent months when she discovered the allure of make-up and cleavage, fit the mold. For her sixth birthday, she requested a cowboy getup and a stick pony. But no one ever meant the taunting seriously, and you always concluded any ribbing of Alex with, “Yeah, riiiiiight,” as if her being gay could not possibly be. And your follow up was consistently, “But even if you were gay, it wouldn't matter a bit,” and the two of you would discuss how lame it is when families condemn their loved ones who “come out.”

Now you're remembering the countless hours you and Alexis have spent salivating over Antonio Banderas and Ashton Kutcher and Alan Rickman together; and Alexis's computer screensaver is an underwear shot of David Beckham, for God's sake. There isn't a gay bone in her body.

But instead of shooting you her wry countenance, she walks out of the room, her face still in hiding beneath the couch pillow. Oh. Shit, you think. Shit. You've hit the nail on its proverbial, homosexual head. “Alex. Come back.” You don't go after her. You give her time. She slinks back in and curls into a ball on the loveseat, across the den from you. So small. So vulnerable. “Darling,” you soothe. “You can tell me.”  

“I think I'm attracted to swimmers,” she says, covering her face with her hands. “The smell of chlorine on their skin. Jessica came up to me the other day and licked her arm and held it out for me to smell. I…I couldn't breathe.”

You wonder who the hell Jessica is. You weigh your reply. Fuck. There goes my last chance at grandkids, is not your best choice at this point. All you say is, “Oh.” You can't come up with a coherent sentence for a second because the truth is louder than you'd thought it could be. You imagine a wedding with two gowns. You ponder sperm donors. Your jaw sets when the possibility of slurs hurled at your little girl seeps behind your narrowed eyes.

You think about this: Your mother's brother, Mack, a magnificently gregarious, vivacious, genius brain surgeon whose opulent life fizzles out like a wet match when he lies dying of AIDS in the misunderstood hours before Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Uncle Mack's fellow MD's shun him. He loses his medical license. The bank takes the house and the Cadillacs and his dignity. He moves into his parents' guest house at 42 and whiles away his minutes painting and praying. He starves when the sores in his mouth and throat make eating hellacious, and he loses so much of his good-living girth that when he turns to face you one Christmas after retrieving milk from the refrigerator, you whisper to your mother, Who's that? Then when he finally gives in, when he stops his fruitless fight, when you bawl as the respirator forces his chest cavity to rise up like a mechanical mannequin's, and tears of fear and shame and pain and defeat score the sides of his face, your mother says, “My brother doesn't have AIDS. That disease is not in him.” Three days later, she and her parents stand up in front of his casket and tell the assembly that Mack died of an environmental poisoning. They insist. Everyone knows different, but they deny. They deny who he is. And he knew it. That cannot be the right thing to say.

And this image plays out in your head like a flickering black-and-white 8mm: Your brother-in-law, Aaron, in his twenties, still lives in his parents' home. He's slamming through the front door, fleeing into the yard, in the middle of a shouting battle with his bellowing father. Aaron turns back to the man, who props open the peeling storm door, who shakes and reddens and spits, and Aaron says, “Yeah, well, fuck you! And, by the way. I'm GAY.”

His father, strangled with fury, choked with hatred, blasts, “Not in my house, you aren't!” And you know that isn't the right tack either.

So. You look at your daughter, your Alexis, over there on the short couch; your fragile angel who is searching your expression, assessing your soul, and you see hope and terror and longing. And an opportunity. You can slice her, disown her, rewrite her. Or you can recognize that nothing has changed, really. What has changed, really? Maybe you can't revel in Ryan Reynold's abs together anymore. Maybe she won't go to the prom. Or maybe there just won't be a tux involved. Maybe you can both sigh over Angelina Jolie simultaneously. Maybe you can be the one to tell the far-right fuckers to go to Hell when they proclaim your daughter will burn there. And maybe you'll find Jessica as lovely and funny and marvelous as Alexis does.

Then you exhale. “Tell me about her,” you say, and you join your daughter on her side of the room.