Friday, February 19, 2010


Since my mother’s death 3 months ago, I’ve been thinking of family stories to tell. The best stories usually aren’t about the good times when everything goes smoothly, but rather times of conflict.


I’ve always thought the silent treatment was stupid, well, at least after about 15 minutes. I admit there are occasions when I’m spitting mad and don't want to talk until I cool down. But after a few minutes, I’m eager to talk it out. I’ve always believed the silent treatment was a bad idea, not only between individuals, but also between countries. There was a time when it was U.S. policy not to speak to the PLO, for example. Why? What can be resolved or accomplished without communication?

When I was about 12, one summer my mother was so angry at my father and sister that she wouldn’t speak to them. I have no idea why and now that my father, mother and sister are all gone, I can’t ask them. But I’m sure if it had been something important I would have remembered. My mother’s silent treatment went on for about two weeks.
I was the only family member she would speak to. This put me in a terrible position. I felt good that my mother wasn’t mad at me, too, but it also made me feel guilty that my mother spoke to me and no one else. If anyone wanted to communicate with each other, they had to do it through me. That was a terrible burden to put on a 12-year-old.
This still seems strange to me because I hardly remember my parents having even minor disagreements. They were deeply in love and truly liked one another. They were affectionate and always acted respectfully toward each other. My father often reminded my sister and me how good of a mother we had. My mother did the same about my father.
But, perhaps there was a family tradition of angry silence. As far as I know my mother’s parents never acted this way. But all three of her sisters did. By comparison, my mother’s two weeks of silence was just a blip.


My mother’s oldest sister S was married to a man who didn’t want to go anywhere. But sometime when their youngest son was in high school (early 1960s) she convinced him to take a driving trip to Niagara Falls in July. On the way home, my uncle got mad at my aunt. My aunt and uncle communicated through notes and used their son to pass on messages until relatives showed up for Christmas dinner six month later.
My mother had two younger sisters, E & J, who didn't speak to each other for over a decade.
       E was a nursing student at a time when it was forbidden to marry, but she was secretly married for several years before completing her studies. Several years later, her husband was tragically killed in an explosion at work.
The other sister, J, and her husband rented half of a duplex and became friends with their next-door neighbors, but the neighbors were having marital problems and soon the woman told my aunt she thought they were headed for divorce. The man confided to my uncle that he had been seeing another woman. He had no idea that the widow he had been dating was J’s sister E.
E married her new love without telling anyone. This was probably around 1952. When J found out that E had been dating, and then married the husband of her friend, she stopped speaking to her.
It turned out that the sisters lived only a few miles apart. Their children went to the same high school, but were unaware that their cousins were among their classmates. Both J & E’s husbands worked for the same large company. At annual picnics, their children might play softball together without knowing they were cousins.
Only when their mother (my grandmother) died about thirteen years later did the sisters break their silence. My aunt E and her second husband stayed together until his death, but I don’t think it was a happy marriage.

I don’t know what the silent treatment accomplished in any of these cases except to alienate family members, keep cousins from knowing each other, force children into situations where they had to be go-betweens between their parents, and set bad examples for everyone's children.
If you’re ever mad at me, let’s talk it out, okay?
(©2010, C.J. Peiffer)

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