When Our Kids Won’t Talk

We’ll try anything, even becoming an Uber driving nutcracker

Ellen Catherine
Human Parts


Black and white picture of teen staring out car window, profile angle.
Photo by Abigail on Unsplash

Like any mother, I worry about keeping the lines of communication open with my kids. Although I know the importance of being available for honest dialogue, I am also fairly confident that my awkward yet persistent attempts to start said dialogue, have no doubt had the opposite effect over the years. This was especially true when my three children were younger, more reluctant sharers.

My pushy and intrusive efforts often left me feeling more like a scary nutcracker than a welcoming partner for conversation. I lived in constant fear of applying the wrong amount of pressure in the wrong place at the wrong time. But then I remembered the single best parenting advice my father had once given me: The best talks happen in cars.

There was a screaming irony to his words because as the father of thirteen, he knew damn well we were rarely alone with either parent, let alone in the car. When he gave me this advice, number nine smiled politely and made a mental note to search the archives. As I tried to recount family discussions we may have had while careening down country roads in our clown car, I remembered there were great debates; loud crosstalk filled battles of wit and speed, but nothing life changing.

We never solved the mystery of the Planet of the Apes pool table debacle. Never found out why Marty was playing the trombone in the driveway when dad ran over his foot. Still don’t know why our vacuum cleaner was named Agnes and why our oldest brother dried his hair with it. Then I remembered a solitary trip to Burger Chef.

I was in fourth grade when a girl at school decided to make fun of my lunch. She made it her life’s mission to herald the news of my sad, single sliced bologna sandwich and the apparent, destitute state of my family. I was miserable but there was no way I was going to tell my parents. I was embarrassed not only for myself but for them as well, and desperately afraid I would hurt their feelings.

My dad could sense something was up and asked me one night if I wanted to go with him to pick my sister up at work. I knew I could not pass up such a rare treat even though that single slice of bologna hung like a brick around my neck. We drove for a while in silence before he conveniently missed the turnoff to the exit. He apologized and asked if I would mind a detour, he was starving. We turned into the Burger Chef a couple of exits down and I scrambled into the front seat, eager to get the full experience of a drive-up window.

As we ate our secret stash, we laughed and talked about silly things but then he turned the conversation to my mood and the nutcracker came out. I don’t remember much else about the ride home. I don’t even remember how I told him, but what happened the next day has become a genetic memory.

When I went to get my lunch ready for school, my mother told me dad had already packed it. I opened the brown bag and sitting atop my single sliced bologna sandwich was the biggest chocolate éclair I had ever seen, wrapped so gorgeously it seemed to trumpet its arrival when the bag opened. It was the first time I felt such an onslaught of mixed emotions, all ping-ponging from my heart to my head to my gut. Surprise, joy, gratefulness, confusion, guilt, sadness — they were all firing at me, slugging it out for top billing.

However, it was guilt and sadness that rose to the top, as most curdled things do. Through no fault of my own, my confessed words wounded him, and I think very deeply. Our new bond had been sealed with the most brutal and useless of emotions, shame. He knew I had been trying to protect him and now I knew he could be injured in life, even by a snotty little fourth grade girl. I remember thinking, we are in this together.

What I had forgotten was that sacred formative moment would never have happened if not for that car ride.

When the vacuum-like sound of a car door shutting signals the heart and brain that it is safe to talk, miraculous things can happen. The invisible pain people carry can evaporate with the hot breath of conversation. The struggle to make connections, real connections, can be test driven for accuracy. Silence can be embraced as an alternative to senseless piles of words said only to pressure people to talk for the sake of talking.

It can be the ultimate guardian for reluctant sharers, protecting them against we, who inadvertently steam roll small, fragile, beautiful beginnings.

Often during those early years, I would heed my father’s words as I opened the door to a more encouraging and welcoming nutcracker. It was blue, had four wheels, and was littered with empty Dunkin Donut cups and yellow Labrador fur; but it was our version of a nutcracker, nonetheless. As we travelled down the back roads of surrounding towns, I knew the promise of a good talk sat like an unwrapped delicious pastry in the back seat.

We would drive in that protected silence until one of us wanted to lightly knock at the edges of our individual thought bubbles. A gesture to let the other one know I see you, I am listening, I am ready.

We are here in this safe place, cracking nuts together.

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Ellen Catherine
Human Parts

Lifelong writer of essays, memoir pieces, and poetry who is working to release the ball of angst, worry, and guilt associated with said writing.