A good conversation

My aunt, an often contrary woman my mother dreaded having to spend time with, a mother hated by the son she adored (she doted on him when he was a baby, anyway), was, to put it kindly, something of a pain in the ass. Growing up in a very small family, she was my only aunt. Her husband, my father’s brother, (the only sibling of either of my parents) was my one uncle. We saw them at holidays every year, and the gatherings were always electric with uncomfortable, crudely buried emotions.

My uncle, a smallish, slight man who looked like Stephen Colbert, often flinched around his much larger older brother. He’d laugh nervously after each flinch, remembering that they were both adults now, I suppose, but you could see his discomfort whenever my father moved or spoke in a certain way. My uncle had a corny sense of humor, a surprisingly effective disguise for a temper he kept hidden from me, somehow, until I was close to forty.

I’ll never forget his tour-de-force of raving tyranny one year when my sister and I went to visit him and our aunt. It was like watching a cute small dog suddenly lunge, teeth bared, at another dog’s throat, then another, persisting wildly until all the other dogs were bloody heaps. My mother and my first cousin, long wary of my uncle, were shocked that it took me so long to see this angry, dictatorial side of the mild-mannered fellow, but, as I said, he never showed any sign of it to me, until he did.

I am thinking of a good conversation, the remarkable meeting of the minds and hearts we don’t have very often. It is an exchange of honest reactions, where both parties are sometimes vulnerable and both are interested and open to learning something new from the other, if only how they truly feel. We always learn something in these kind of talks, if only that somebody else understands something we have only just started to be able to express. I had a couple of interesting chats with my uncle over the years, mainly about politics (we were pretty much in sync on our political views) but nothing I’d classify as a memorably good conversation. It was partly my uncle’s aversion to the personal, I suppose.

One night, in the living room of my parents house in Queens, everybody else had gone up to bed, and my aunt and I were in the living room. I was probably around thirty at the time. I’ve always been a night owl, my aunt and uncle were generally in their pajamas before ten. In fact, it was my uncle’s demand that we all get ready for bed at 10 pm, when my sister and I visited him years later as adults, that served as his first shot across the bow, the opening salvo of what the next day would erupt into full blown crazy autocratic rage.

In the living room of my parents’ house, on that quiet tree-lined street, my aunt and I had a remarkable conversation. I recall nothing specific about our long ago talk, other than the closeness I felt to my aunt as we revealed ourselves to each other. Knowing that she had the capacity for this kind of openness made me feel differently about her.

My cousin, when I mentioned this chat to him, always scoffed. To him his mother was a devious master-manipulator, certainly she’d picked up on and played off some vulnerability I’d shown her. Seeing the emotional opening, she’d sympathetically slipped in to ingratiate herself, to cunningly arm and situate herself for future harm she was already planning.

People do this kind of thing, pretend to care with their eye on some other prize, though I remain unconvinced that my aunt was doing that the night of that striking conversation we had. What I recall was how personal our talk was. My aunt told me personal details of her life as I shared details of my own inner life. We were on the same page, as they say (and for good reason).

I have an amusing, short anecdote about my demanding aunt, but it will have to wait. I am focusing on those rare, therefore precious, conversations we have with others that actually exert some change on our lives. They can be illusions, as the one with my aunt may have been (being a one-off, for one thing), but these conversations serve as reminders of what we can be, if we are honest, and open, and truly curious about another person’s inner life.

Seeking the essence of this kind of exchange, this emerging shared knowledge of something deeper, beyond the surface, every day world, is one big reason we read. It is also a gigantic reason many of us write.

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