all in the family

Fine-Tuned to Each Other’s Frequencies

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy the author.

All in the Family is a series on kith and kin during a year like no other.

My stepfather calls from Kansas where cases are on the rise. He says my mother’s name and then emits a low whine, a pained hmmmmm, and the impenetrability of this sound makes me weak with worry.

“Is Mom okay? Is Mom okay, Ted? Ted?”

“Oh,” says Ted, “You? Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

He meant to call my mother. His mind mixes up names now. I’m flooded with relief and then love for my mom, who, for him, is so close to me we blur together.

First Ted mixed up pronouns. Then he confused nouns. He’d start a sentence, then stop, scanning for a missing word and returning with one nearby — related, but incorrect. This started five years ago. I’d call and he’d tell me my mother couldn’t come to the phone, that she was out in the shed with the birds, and then he’d say, “No, no, that’s not right. The other thing; she’s with the other things.” Early on, he’d fight phrases, but his sentences had grown wild and he’d lost his control over them. Eventually he’d relent, saying, “She’s in the shed,” and then, “She’s in the place she goes,” and then just, “She.” And because I knew my mother’s daily rhythms, knew when she went to the barn to feed her horses, and because I knew Ted’s rhythms were changing, I was able to take the same seamless meaning from each of his busted utterances.

Now he’s lost nouns altogether. The first noun he lost was adobe. He pointed to it on a page and my mother said, “Adobe, you know. Adobe.” And he stared at her, confused, while she said, “Adobe, adobe, adobe, adobe,” until the word held no meaning for her either.

His doctors told us that sometimes people had minor strokes, which could affect speech and language and memory. They did tests. Ted got overwhelmed in an airport and wept. They did more tests. Ted would say, “It’s the thing that goes up and down,” and my mother and I would shout, “Window!” like game-show contestants. The doctors did more tests. The list of possibilities became smaller and smaller until there was only one left.

“Are you no longer amazed by language?” a professor once shouted at me, disappointed by one of my seminar papers. “We break it and break it and jumble it up and yet remain able to make and receive seamless meaning.” Seamless meaning, seamless meaning, two words I heard over and over in graduate school. At the heart of a great human mystery was seamless meaning. The mystery: What makes it possible for humans to transform marks, noises, signs into meaningful utterances understood effortlessly?

If my mother and I can’t immediately understand him, Ted looks at us, irate and wounded, certain we’ve teamed up to play a cruel trick on him. He’ll say, “Just give me the thing, there, the thing that goes on the … Why won’t you?”

In spring: Work halts, stores close, streets empty, no parties, no parks, no exchanges with strangers, small talk forgotten. Left alone, my family’s language breaks down and constricts to fit the universe of our small Brooklyn apartment. It collapses into blown fragments, words disarranged, guttural tones, groans, noises, songs sung badly to our cat, shrieks, signs, sighs, frowns; I speak in frowns now mostly. My husband communicates in a language of frowns so nuanced they etch meaning into the air between us. A quick downtick of his lip and I know: The tweets are bad. Eyes wide: The news is bad. I watch the edges of his mouth slide down, slowly: We as a species deserve our undoing. Words unravel in our 8-year-old’s mouth; tunes spill out in bursts. He mutters at the window, makes up jokes for no one. A prolonged look, a suspicious hug: He wants pizza for dinner.

Before our isolation, this partial language, this familial slang came to me throughout my day in secret missives: a buzz in my pocket, half a sentence in my hand, a bubble of private language bursting through the formal language of the faculty meeting, classroom, or book I was reading. But the pandemic severs me from my variable language communities. I access them briefly via Zoom, but intimate language crowds in, presses through the closed door, mingles with meeting speech: the sound of my son singing a song to our cat. Over time, even our cat songs disintegrate, the melodies warble and loosen, their journey from sense to none known only to us.

My best friend Kate says to me, “Guess who fixed my parents’ porch?” and then a name and we laugh until we’re crying. It’s summer and we’re in mixed company, on a Zoom with our husbands next to us. They wait for us to explain the joke or at least stop laughing.

“What is this?” my husband finally says, and Kate’s husband says, “It’s their 30 years of friendship.”

My mother, my husband, my son, my closest friend: We whisper along our private networks, finely tuned to each other’s frequencies. My bad theory of intimate language is this: The ease with which we take seamless meaning from the barest utterances is directly related to how much we love each other. It’s evidence of our devotion. And because I have this bad theory, and because we’ve more endured each other than loved each other, I do not include Ted in this, my most valued language community.

By the time Ted came into our lives, it was already too late; we’d been alone too long. I was 10 when my father left us, and in the years that followed my mother and I rushed to fill the space made in his absence, until there was only room for the two of us, our language, our joined actions. She and I, alone, paced around our Kansas farmhouse, talking through our loosest thoughts. Over the years, our lives took a new shape that outlined us only. Together, we formed new habits, moved in unison, cobbled together a life designed by our own internal logic. We made our world from scraps. For dinner, my mother made us soups from whatever was wilting in the fridge. These were great soups. She was a genius with these soups. I helped her cook. I helped her clean. I was awake when she was awake and slept when she slept. Before this time, I’d been an unmoored vessel on the ocean of my parents’ will, but suddenly she and I steered the ship together, my mother and I.

I was 16 when Ted started coming around. He shuffled his feet through our kitchen, opened cabinets, picked up and replaced spoons, shook his head in disbelief. Nothing was clean enough. It didn’t make sense to him that we kept bags of chips inside a broken microwave, that we kept a broken microwave, that none of our silverware matched, that none of our plates and bowls belonged to a set, that our bread was on the top of the refrigerator — and what was with all these soups? No two the same, no recipe, no plan? He took the bread off the top of the refrigerator and put it on the counter. I moved it back. He moved it. I moved it.

I resented the invasion of the world I shared with my mother, and he resented me for not welcoming him into it. Language strained between us. We only spoke formally, our speech style reinforcing our desired distance. If no one was around, we’d drop words altogether, finally expressing what we really felt, which was nothing at all.

Ted orated rules. He had rules for everything, including what constituted a legitimate sentence — subject, verb, object. Clean, neat, cut. Anything that bent the rules was defective. Ted was a journalism professor and thought sentences should conform to a singular notion of utility. He did not play with language; he was not interested in its sonic properties, or deviations for style or experimentation; he saw no point in metaphor, alliteration, assonance. He was moved by use, a small and finite thing in his hand. He arrived at his office on campus every morning at nine. He worked for eight hours a day — no more, no less. He did not miss deadlines. He never played hooky; he was never sick; he never brought his work home with him. He swam laps for an hour each afternoon. He ate a turkey sandwich and three pieces of fruit for every lunch. For dinner, he cooked one of seven meals. He bought the same groceries every week. He prized efficiency, logic, routine. Disorder made him anxious. He was anguished watching me wash the dishes. I never once washed one dish to his liking. He took the messes I made as a strike against my character, and I took rigidity as a strike against his. He forced his rules into my world when he moved our bread, tossed our broken microwave, reorganized the cabinets, bought new flatware, married my mother. Ted, a man who never missed a swim, who was consistent in his care, who never abandoned us. Practical Ted, upright Ted, unyielding, unalterable Ted: ordered, reliable, precise, tidy — bills paid on time, oil changed on time, dinner on the table not a minute past seven; sweeping our floor, clearing the counter, devoted to my mother, dying of Alzheimer’s.

On the phone, Ted says, “I have the … It is the … the very good thing.”

I think of the distance between a sentence’s surface and its underlying reality. If the distance is short, it is easily traveled. Who in my life would travel the furthest between what I say and what I mean? We’re still stuck in our little Brooklyn apartment — me, my husband, our son, our cat. A miscommunication between us feels apocalyptic. We fight over the slightest iciness in a tone, edge in a phrase, a snort, a grimace. “Don’t laugh at me,” I cry after my husband exhales too forcefully at the wrong time.

Ted continues, “Good and well, because I can’t and she … you know.” And I do know. I know he’s talking about my mother.

An errant cough holds new meaning. I cover my mouth, I reassure my husband with a shake of my head, but he cringes and says, “If I lost you, I’d become a practitioner of a dead language.”

My mother tells me Ted follows her around the house now. If he doesn’t, he loses the thread, gets lost in the day. He follows her to the barn and back, and when she retreats into a room, he stands in the doorway, unwilling to enter or exit. He doesn’t like her to leave his sight. The number of people who can decipher his sentences shrinks, but she still can, and this tethers him to the world. Where she goes, so goes meaning.

But I, too, understand him.

On the phone, he tells me about a specific cereal, and I don’t need him to name it. I know the one. I’d seen him eat it morning after morning, year after year. Our resistance to each other gives way below the weight of our shared familial language. I see now the bridge between our foreign shores, built by the pileup of time.

“It has the, a lot of the …” says Ted.

“Grains,” I say.

“Yes, from 900 … from 150 …”

“Ancient grains.”

“Yes, and it has the good magic.”

“It’s organic.”

“Yes, you have to get it from the good place.”

“Hy-Vee, you mean?”

Breakfasts, all the boring breakfasts. Happy and unhappy, life in the presence of the other. Hours accumulate and tangle, turn into meaning. I pick at the strands — his utterance, the scene, my deep knowledge of him.

“Yes,” Ted says. “Yes, you are right.”

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