I feel pity mixed with admiration for my wife’s tenacity.
She still thinks that she can get me to change for “the better” — her definition, of course.
My goodness. I am 75 years old. We have been married for 13 years as of this month.
Yet she still tries to get me to stay silent and listen while other people talk.
I do that when we are “out.” Simple politeness, y’know. “Out” can be a church parlor or a Chamber of Commerce meeting.
But “out” is not a family gathering, even if those relatives are from her speak-and-pause family and not my yak-across-others crowd.
“You have to let other people have the floor,” she suggests sweetly, using that “have the floor” figure of speech as though we would be at a meeting governed by Robert’s Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure.
My family did not let other people have the floor.
If you want the floor, you take the floor, or glom onto a piece of it and defend it by talking.
All four grandparents immigrated from Italy. Both couples had large families: seven on my father’s side, six on my mother’s side.
They ate together whenever possible during the workweek, and for sure every Sunday unless someone was away in military service or attending a funeral.
There is truth to the stereotype that Latins, including Italians, talk a lot.
By the time I got to the age where I wanted to talk during those meals, the crowd around the table had grown to include aunts’ and uncles’ spouses, many of whom had been raised in the same shout-it-out ethnic cacophony. Their children, too, ate on Sundays, perhaps at the main table, often at smaller side tables wedged into corners in the same room.
We all talked. All the time.
Sometimes even with our mouths full of food.
The wine might have had something to do with the volume.
But the location also contributed. My paternal grandparents lived just across the street from the steel fabricating plant where my grandfather and all of my uncles worked at one time or another.
It had overhead cranes, their steel wheels squealing on steel rails.
It had the growl and bustle of men and steel moving about.
It even had its own percussion section: forging hammers.
One might think that it would be impossible to carry on conversations in a house less than 300 feet from such an auditory inferno.
“But wait,” as they say in the TV commercials. “There is more!”
About 200 feet behind that same house house was the six-track yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad — back when railroad engines were huff-and-chuff steam engines, not the less noisy diesels of today.
The engines and railcars squealed, much as the cranes across the street squealed their steel wheels on steel rails chords.
But they also coupled and uncoupled — by being yanked apart to the hiss of deflating air brake chambers, or slammed together with enough force to push the open couplers at the ends of each car together with a resounding thump.
That is where I learned how to talk at family gatherings.
We did stop talking — when two trains passed each other behind the house with enough force to rattle the windows and shake the doors.
During the pauses, we continued to converse with hand gestures.
After the meal, people went into a “front room” — and smoked. Pipes, cigars and cigarettes threw a veil over the room, but not over the conversations.
We talked within one conversation, sure. But we also kibitzed into side conversations, adding a reaction or an anecdote when we thought of one. It really did not matter if everyone else heard. What counted was that some people heard, and responded, laughter framing the verbiage with octaves ranging from guttural to sopranic.
The trait carried me through high school. Ours was a large class, some 360 students. You-know-who (I) was the “most loquacious” boy, joining the late, delightfully talkative Barbie Erickson. And I did not even have to work hard to be voted to that distinction.
The gab-a-lot forebears of my childhood are long gone by now. We have TV sets, smart phones, computers and music to augment our voices.
So I stifle myself — when we are “out.”
But when talk turns to politics or baseball, my stem is tightly wound. If you wish to talk, go for it. Turn up your volume, pace yourself to project your voice into my pauses for breath, wave a hand in my face. If what you are saying is interesting, I will probably stop talking to hear some of it.
My wife remains hopeful of more.
“You need to change,” she says.
Such optimism. Such naiveté. Such earnest, sweet suggestions.
Don’t count on it.
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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org