14. “The Family Portrait”

“The Family Portrait”

Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who loved to paint pictures with words. They met and courted and communicated almost entirely in words, and theirs was a love affair that could accurately be described as epistolary. When they married and started living together, they continued the painting that they had started while living far apart. They read books out loud to each other on road trips, made up parodies of classics, sang out the funny bits from novels, cried over each other’s favorite children’s books, and talked and talked and talked, watching their love story take flight through word play. When the man was ill, the woman read out loud to him from Scientific American, about robot fish. They scoffed at the movie versions of books, and sneezed over used books at the secondhand bookstore. We’ll always have words, they said, as they fought over the latest New Yorker. When their daughter was born, they celebrated her own love of painting with words, and eagerly watched her add her brushstrokes to the family canvas.

Several years later, a son was born to the wordy man and woman. And they realized, with their irony muscles made fit by years of word painting, that the universe had played a cosmic joke in the form of a nonverbal child who rarely wanted to hear any words.

For a while, their world became rather silent. The man and the woman trod softly, not knowing how to unite their version of love with the path that now lay before them. What shall we do? they asked each other. They often fell asleep in silence, books relegated to the shelves, too careworn to paint any pictures. They still used words, but in a more pedestrian fashion. They spoke of tasks and schedules, and kept their sentences clipped and brief. When they forgot themselves and became enthusiastic about talking, their little boy would cover his ears and wail, and they would subside, not wanting to upset his equilibrium. Perhaps it was what one exchanged with the universe, they said. Words for a child. They smiled at each other over the heads of their children, knowing they had made the perfect trade.

But slowly, ever so sneakily, words began to peek into the lives of the little family again. The unfinished painting that had lain unattended began to shimmer and beckon. The dust motes danced on the canvas. The man and the woman noticed, and longed to paint again. But they were afraid to try. Silence had become their companion, their constant, their shield.

If they were honest, silence had also shaped their family. They had almost forgotten the pleasure of a well chosen word, the perfect moment of understanding between them when they shared a perfect phrase. They had shaped themselves to use other means of communication, and were uncertain of being accepted as wordsmiths by their children. What if we turn back to what we were and we paint again, but we can’t be good minders of these special children’s spirits? they wondered. What if we can’t be both?

The universe was not so coldhearted, though. As the canvas was brought back to life, hesitantly, then with more verve and humor and trust, the little boy, who was, after all, the child of this man and woman, began to listen. He didn’t always understand or appreciate, but he saw the energy, and he felt the peace, and he perceived the crackle in the air that passed between the man and the woman when they were engaged in their word painting.

There is something in what they are doing, he said to himself. And he began to sit in their laps and enjoy the rumble of the man’s chest when he spoke in his deeper voice, the caresses and hugs that the woman gave him unknowingly when she replied. He came to recognize when they were suppressing laughter, when they were not in agreement, and when they were weighing their words carefully because someone else was there. That someone else is me, he said, surprised. He had not thought of their family as separate beings before. Now he saw it. And he wanted to put himself into the word painting too. Words were the brush, he understood now.

He picked up his own brush. And he knew what he wanted to say. He said all the things that got the man and the woman and the girl to smile at him, to do things for him, and to praise him for sounding out words. He asked for Skittles, hugs, tickles, car rides, dosas, music, and pizza. He used his iPad and learned to tell knock-knock jokes. He didn’t know what a knock-knock was, but he liked that it made everyone laugh. I’m painting, he said, and it pleased him immensely. He had not wanted to paint before, but now he knew why people liked it.

The boy taught something priceless to the man and the woman and the girl too. He taught them that silence was part of the painting. He showed them how to lift wordlessness to an art. They all turned pages of picture books without speaking, and absorbed the colors. They hugged for long moments, with only the sound of breath as accompaniment. They used rhythm to calm down. When the boy was afraid of the pressure cooker, they danced in the kitchen to no music, looking at the contrail of steam. In all of that, they conquered their preexisting ideas of beauty and communication. They didn’t always need speech when a smile would do. Sometimes a dance taught them more about one another than a thought voiced aloud.

Silence was a brushstroke too. So were half formed words. The man and the woman and the girl and the boy all looked out at the world from the tableau they were painting. They could read the boy’s silences better now, and the boy could read more of their words. What a family, they said, as they danced between words and silence with greater ease. You couldn’t paint a family portrait, after all, without mastering the art of the backdrop. You couldn’t become a family without learning to read the silences.


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