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Phyllis Berger Headshot

Just Tell Me What to Say

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I was standing at the ticket counter waiting with our children, 19, 21, and 23, while my husband was checking us in for our vacation in Hawaii. Behind us, we noticed an attractive woman with a friend and a male companion. My two youngest recognized her as a well-known actress. My oldest son gave me what I interpreted to be a quizzical look, so I assumed he wasn't sure who she was. "Chloe Sevigny," I mouthed. As Chloe and her entourage walked away, in unison my kids attacked me. "How could you yell her name like that?" said Jenna.

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "I hardly made a sound. Ben looked at me and he wanted to know who she was."

"Are you kidding?" said Ben. "The look I gave you was 'don't say a word, mom.' You have no idea how loud you can be."

Nicky joined the fray. "You know you do this all the time. We're always telling you that you embarrass us by making some comment loud enough for everyone to hear. Come on, you have to admit it."

"I will not admit it," I said loudly enough for everyone to hear. "I mouthed her name. She'd have to have supersonic hearing to hear me and, anyway, what was so terrible about what I said? Chloe Sevigny would be thrilled that we all recognized her."

"Stop defending yourself," said Jenna. "We all were just embarrassed and you won't admit you were wrong."

I let them have the last word. I stepped away with a feeling that had become familiar to me as a mother--defeat.

You know that period in a parent's life when their children are small and they believe their parents are infallible? Well, I never had it. I've been saying the wrong thing every since they learned to understand the English language.

The other day, Jenna called me from college. The deadline was approaching for her to decide whether to add a fifth course, a required science, to her schedule. She enumerated several pros and cons of both decisions. I listened and after she was done, I said, "it sounds as if it's a good idea to get the science requirement over with since you're hoping to spend a semester abroad next year."

And with just those words, it was as if I had stepped on a landmine.

Jenna said, "I can't believe you said that. Why do you always think it's your decision what courses I take in school? It's like last year. You were so invested in me taking five courses. Every phone call, you'd ask, 'did you sign up for a fifth course?' I can handle this myself, mom."

Hey, she called me to talk about this, I didn't call her, and I don't remember mentioning five courses every time we spoke, or even caring if she took four or five courses. If it takes her an extra year to graduate, so what? We'll pay the extra tuition from our retirement money. I have lousy genes in my family so I probably won't need that money anyway. My daughter and I played our version of Rashomon for five minutes until she ended it as she often does, with a curt "I've gotta go," and I'm left with my blood pressure nearing 911 proportions while she, I'm sure, goes into a friend's room and forgets all about it.

Today there are so many new ways that I seem to be able to mess up. Texting seems to be a preferred form of interacting with my kids, so when I texted my son, Ben, who hadn't been feeling well, with "How are you doing?" I was surprised to find that this was such a loaded question. "Busy. Stop worrying. It's getting annoying."

My life would be so much easier if my children would just tell me what they wanted me to say. I could use a script where they would write both parts, themselves and the perfect mother they, and I, wish I could be. Our conversation could go something like this:

Nicky: "I need a break from working. I haven't decided for sure but I'm thinking about driving cross-country on a motorcycle. I found a used one that only has 300,000 miles on it. Never been on a bike, but I bet it's not that hard."

First there would be silence as I stifled a cry of fear. Then I'd look expectantly at him.
Nicky: "Mom, you say, 'I understand. You must be exhausted from working so hard. It sounds like a super fun plan. I'll even give you the money to buy the bike. I'm sure you'll make the right decision.'"

And I say exactly that instead of "You're out of your mind, you've only been out of school for three months, work is meant to be hard, and you can get a motorcycle when you put me six feet underground and not a second before."

So then everybody would be happy. I'd never say the wrong thing, offer advice when it wasn't solicited, or mispronounce words -- did you know it's not chicken tikka marsala, it's chicken tikka masala? -- that one always infuriates my children for some reason. So, kids, please just tell me what you want me to say, and I promise, after I tell you what I really think, I'll tell you what you wanted to me say.