I was a little girl, maybe six, maybe seven years old, in the back seat of my Uncle Saul’s car. My cousin, Bobby, also six or seven, was in the front seat.
I adored Uncle Saul and assumed the love was mutual. It was, but not, as it turned out, without severe qualifications. This I learned when I repeated, with what I fancied was panache, an intellectual line or two my father had delivered a night or so previously. A line probably about tangled politics in the Soviet Union–my father was an expert.
Dad was both witty and dazzlingly erudite; he had gotten laughter for those lines. When I attempted to replicate for my uncle what my father had said, I was consciously pulling Dad’s brilliant cloak over my own unformed little persona.
I was a hit, wasn’t I?
Nope. A day or so later, my mother took me aside, her face stern and concerned. She said, “Uncle Saul told us you sounded like an ignoramus, that you clearly didn’t know what you were talking about.”
I hadn’t known what I was talking about. I thought I understood what my father had been talking about and had repeated it to demonstrate that I was smart enough to understand. Apparently I wasn’t.
I felt like a fool. No; I was a fool.
“You must never talk about things you know nothing about,” Mom added firmly, if de trop.
I don’t simply remember the sense of public embarrassment. When I evoke it, as I just did here, it floods my innards and invades my bones. Inside and outside, I still turn hot burning chili red when I remember the awfulness of shame, of being an idiot.
Yes, it was a lousy way to treat a child–especially a girl child–in her initial efforts at public production and, yes, the adult males in my family were rampant chauvinists, but my mother and I both made solid use of my trauma. She soon revealed herself to be a subversive proto-feminist who actively encouraged all her children, regardless of gender.
As for me, for a very long time afterward I was too ashamed to express political opinions at all, let alone those plucked verbatim from somebody else’s mouth. Not, at least, until I learned how to get the facts of life by reading newspapers.