When I was eleven years old, still flat-chested and shaggy-haired, I wrote my father a note explaining in painstaking detail the hurt I felt over some favoritism he’d shown my younger sister. The specific incident is lost to memory, but I remember writing and rewriting that note several times until I’d perfectly captured the injustice on blue-lined notebook paper.
Before going to bed one night, I carefully folded the note, tiptoed into my parents’ bedroom, and placed it inside the black leather cufflink box on top of my dad’s dresser. Then I returned to my room down the hall, climbed into my narrow twin bed underneath the mod 1970s-style orange comforter, and waited.
Even at that age, I knew I was taking a risk in speaking honestly about something painful. We didn’t do that in my family. We didn’t speak about much of anything other than what was for dinner or that night’s Movie of the Week. I hoped writing would give my words weight, that a note would force my father to pay attention to me. I’d long given up on my mother. She worked nights and was rarely home. I needed my dad to hear me because he was the only parent around.
An hour later, the voices on the television were silenced and I could hear my father’s footsteps creaking through the dining room, then the living room, then into his bedroom. I stared at the light seeping through my doorway and listened as he placed the change from his pocket on top of the dresser. I knew his routine well.
He removed his watch next—I heard it land on top of the dark mahogany, then finally his cufflinks. I stopped breathing; the second he opened the cufflink box he’d see my note, stark and white against the red felt lining. I’d addressed it simply. “Dad, please read this.” I could hear him unfolding the paper. The room grew quiet as he read. Several agonizing seconds later, I heard him crumple the note and toss it into the wastebasket.
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen and saw my dad sitting at the Formica table in his white short-sleeved shirt and dark blue salesman’s tie, reading the sports pages. I waited for him to finish. Once he did, once he saw me, I knew he’d mention the note. Then, finally, we could have a real conversation about something that mattered to me.
I filled a bowl with cereal, sat across from him, and waited. A few minutes later, he looked at his watch, folded the newspaper, pushed back from table, and left for work. He didn’t mention the note that morning.
Nor did he mention it that night at dinner.
Or the next morning.
Although I experienced many dismissive incidents like this with both of my parents, the sound of that note crumpling is embedded the most sharply in my memory. In that moment, I learned my opinions didn’t matter, my emotions weren’t worthy of acknowledgment, and that if my own father wasn’t interested in listening to me, then perhaps there really wasn’t anything interesting about me.
Armed with this story, I grew up and became a journalist. I might not have had anything interesting or funny or remarkable to share, but others did. Standing safely behind my notebook, I could encourage others to speak about their lives without risking rejection by speaking about my own.
The upside of this belief was that I became a very good listener, and learned how passionate I was—and still am—about people’s stories. The downside? I refused to offer an opinion in editorial meetings. I rarely spoke about my work to friends. I once turned down an opportunity to host a local television show—a decision I wonder about to this day. My words had been discarded once before. I wasn’t about to let it happen again.
The story of my dad’s rejection created a subtle prison in my mind—actually, it was more like SuperMax—that kept me from participating fully in life for years. It took a long time for me to realize that the only thing holding me back was a story, a perception, a belief, none of which was grounded in reality.
What crumpled note story has been holding you back or has held you back in the past? How has it hurt you? How has it helped you–if at all? I’d love to know. I’m doing research for a project on personal storytelling and am gathering insight and anecdotes. If you feel like sharing, simply tell your story to me in an email. I won’t use your name without permission.
Thank you in advance for sharing your story with me. It’s an honor and a privilege I don’t take lightly.