This summer I traveled to Gregory, South Dakota with the baby, my mother, aunt and my 90 year-old grandmother. Our trip was something reminiscent of National Lampoons Vacation, but with ample does of estrogen therapy and prozac. We made our way through the trip, but someone really needs to come up with a law against having that many genetically related women together in a vehicle. Either that, or offer free counseling coupons to those who find they have no choice. Perhaps Sarah Palin could suggest that type of bill, or do the counseling herself, since she is so experienced in the stressful-life-situations category.
The Mission of this trip:
To take my grandmother back to visit her three remaining siblings. Characterization follows:
Mabel, 78; Affable and smiley; is repeatedly called, “Mabel-Betty-Grabel” by my aunt. Plump and squishy when hugging, strong farming woman whose hands could snap you in two if she decided it needed done. Bakes kolache (a Czech sweet bread) worth dying over. (Or at least losing a finger.) Funny, charming, and deafer than a shrew’s husband. She refuses to wear hearing aides, although at 78, she could get a lot of longevity out of them, and could actually enjoy a full conversation without turning her head to the side, pointing to her ear and shaking her head no. She’s happy to yell, “I DI'N’T HEAR THAT..” but she seemed to prefer the miming.
Lambert, 81; Slender and agile, never drove a car that anyone can remember. Walks all over town, all day long, spending a good bit of time in the back of Louies Downtown Market, playing the slots. A peaceful, docile soul, never married, has no children. Lives alone in a little apartment, that no one has ever been in. He meets you on your way to his door, and closes it behind him. Quick to smile, and responds to all questions and comments, with “Ohhh….Okay.” Acutely sensitive to sound, his hearing is sharper than a blind water mammal. More than likely can hear dog whistles and Angel’s whispering, and has been witnessed plugging his ears, and then flipping off loud trucks that barrel down the street.
Florence, 90; Grandma’s got the strong genetics, strong spirit and sharp tongue. Bestows compliments sparingly, and those she gives are attached to some kind of barb. The only one of her remaining siblings to have left the grain-country of South Dakota, and move west by herself. Has fortitude of character that masks a melancholy soul. Her voice is soft and high pitched, uncharacteristic of her brusque personality—reminiscent of a child who strains her voice over a froggy throat to be heard. Wears two hearing aides that whistle like tea kettles more than they aide in her hearing. Is constantly changing their batteries, and turning them up, although this never amounts to much except more squealing.
Richard, 93; Lives in an assisted living facility that is always cold. Married (for the first time) Marie in his 60’s, whose passing he laments with teary eyes daily. He wears a folded paper napkin inside his baseball cap to insulate his head that hasn’t seen hair in years. He’s mostly bones, losing weight because he “don’t like most of what they fix aroun' here.” But when eating dinner with our family at the farm, can put away his weight in food. He can regale you with stories of his past, the war, and growing up destitute on the farm, but has trouble remembering which face belongs to who, what day or month it is, and if he told you that it’s always cold downstairs in the morning. Never had children of his own. Has a “good ear,” and a “bad ear,” even though "good" is relative because the “bad one” is pretty much there for looks. You must make sure you communicate to him in his, “good ear,” or you won’t be heard.
A typical luncheon or dinner went something like this:
“HI UNCLE RICHARD. HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY?”
“WHAT?” (turning good ear towards you)
“I SAID HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY?”
“IT’S ALWAYS COLD DOWN HERE IN THE MORNING. I JUST WEAR THIS OVERSHIRT TO KEEP ME WARM.”
“MABEL’S HERE TO VISIT TOO. HI AUNT MABEL, HOW ARE YOU TODAY?”
(Smiling and pointing to ear..)
“SORRY. I SAID HOW ARE YOU TODAY AUNT MABEL? DID YOU BRING ANY MORE KOLACHE?”
“THERES SOME MORE IN THEM BAGS OVER THERE. WHERE’S YOUR GRANDMA?”
“SHE’S IN THE BEDROOM. LET ME GO GET HER FOR YOU.”
“GRANDMA! AUNT MABEL AND RICHARD ARE HERE TO VISIT.”
(follow squeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaalllllll squeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaallllllll down the hall. Grandma is adjusting her hearing aides again.)
“okay. I wouldn’t mind some tea. is there tea on? who’s here again?”
“SO FAR, MABEL AND RICHARD. MOM WENT TO PICK UP LAMBERT.”
“HI UNCLE LAMBERT. DID YOU WIN ANYTHING AT THE SLOTS YESTERDAY?”
“Ohhh…ohkay. Whatcha yellin for?”
(In normal voice) “Sorry, I can’t remember who I need to yell at and who I don’t.” He chuckles.
These conversations (enough to make even Gordon Pask shake his head) continued at about 90 decibels, and Uncle Lambert would listen through finger-plugged ears. After a couple excedrine migraine pills, you were able to sit back and enjoy the conversational dance:
While communicating with my great-aunts and uncles was a bit difficult and included a lot of yelling, it suddenly occurred to me, that communicating with my husband is not much different.
It’s not news to anyone, including my husband and me, that our communication skills are a tad lacking. We addressed it in pre-marriage counseling, and again in after-marriage counseling, and to this day, I’m not sure we’re any better at communicating-except for the fact that we both understand that it’s not really our strong suit. I tend to see the forest, my husband sees the trees. I phrase things in questions, (typically rhetorical where the only answer I’m looking for is, yes, or sure.) My husband doesn’t phrase anything, just makes statements in which I am to surmise the request, like, “The laundry needs done,” or “registrations are open for baseball.” My husband also has a “good ear,” and a “bad ear,” and while they are not quite like Uncle Richards, I at least need to verfiy which one is facing me.
Being the forward thinkers that we are, and wanting to give that silly Gordon Pask a run for his money, my husband and I have developed our own communication style in which we talk only in predicates and prepositional phrases, leaving out or mumbling the subject and verb of each sentence whenever possible. This keeps things lively, as we are never sure what to expect or whom is going to do what. A recent conversation went like this:
Husband: “jcnejrheoicase, set the coffee.”
Me: “What? I didn’t hear you.”
H: “sjkdkirjfeoikj,” (head peeks around the corner, good ear towards me) “set the coffee.”
M: “Yes, set the coffee.”
At this point I’m feeling proud for a number of reasons.
- I clarified what he was saying, by voicing that I didn’t hear him.
- After he repeated the phrase, I said to, yes, set the coffee. As in, please do it.
- I am thrilled that he offered to set the coffee for me so it would be ready when I woke up.
You can imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning to no hot coffee, no grinds in the drip basket, no water in the reservoir--nothing. No coffee. I march into the bedroom where he is still in bed. Poke, poke, poke.
“Where is the coffee? I thought you said you were going to set it?”
“No,” he sleepily replied, “I asked if you had set the coffee. You said, yes, I set the coffee.”
“No,” I inform him. “I thought you asked, do you want me to set the coffee, that’s why I tried to clarify what you said, and then I said, yes, set the coffee.”
I marched out of the room, frustrated, but not surprised. At least we were talking about the same subject.
Another example of our completely functional communication style: yesterday morning I was reading to him some titles of recipes from an old cookbook. Most all the recipes contained a fair amount of gelatin, which I find a heinous ingredient, especially recipes requiring the use of a mold, say in the shape of a jumping salmon or pointy high rise circle. I was reading some of these recipe titles to him:
M: “Honey, listen to this one: Nova Scotia Mold. Doesn’t that sound disgusting? It’s also got your favorite ingredient (chide chide)…salmon.”
H: “Hmmm. Salmon huh? My favorite.”
Imagine my lack of surprise when later that night, my husband is leafing through the very same cookbook and says to me:
H: “Oh, no way. Listen to this. Novia Scotia Mold.”
M: (Staring at him like he has three heads and with annoyed tone in my voice) “Yeah, remember, I mentioned that one earlier? The salmon?
H: “You read this one to me? (With no-you-didn’t-tone) I don’t remember you saying the mold part.”
M: “I read it. That same one. Nova Scotia Mold.”
H: “I must have tuned you out then.”
Unfortunately, truer words are rarely spoken. You may notice that we also communicate with a substantial amount of tone in our voice. This tone has many species, but derives from the family sarcasticus-majorus. When you leave out the subjects and verbs of your statements, you have to fill that void with something. We find that tone really helps to set the, well…tone.
Lambert and Grandma are visiting outside.
L: “So Flo, how’s your ticker?” (Thumping his chest with his fingers.)
G: “My pickup?”
L: “NO, YOUR TICKER.” (Thumping chest again.)
G: “oh, I don’t have a pickup. I have a car. I don’t drive much anymore, my son takes me where I need to go.”
At this point, Uncle Lambert catches my eye, we share a smile and quiet chuckle, as he explains again,
L: “NO, I MEAN YOUR HEALTH. HOW IS YOUR HEALTH?”
G: “oh, my health. it’s fine,” she says with a wave of her hand. Apparently she had more to say about the car.
It’s nice to know that as dysfunctional as our communication is, at least it is preparing us for life as old folks. We won’t be surprised or disgruntled when our conversations turn out something like this:
Me: “HONEY, FIND MY GLASSES?”
Husband: “jkdjoiweus sjiodffa wqwen,ricnm YOUR PAST ASS.”
M: “NO, NOT MY PAST ASS, MY GLASSES, THE ONES YOU BOUGHT ME?”
H: “SOWIEUTMESOIC SODIFS SJFAPE SET THE COFFEE?”