Tongue Tied by
(149 Stories)

Prompted By First Memory

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Not actually me, but I felt like this at the time.

I was standing in the narrow hallway on the plush green carpet popular in the 1950s, near the single bathroom in our split-level home. I was 18 months old. Dressed in red corduroy overalls, I was looking up at my mother, who had one foot in the hallway and the other in the bathroom. She was yelling at me. “Why did you wet your pants when you knew you didn’t have diapers on?” she screamed.

This is my first memory, and is it accurate? I believe it is, especially now that I have a lot of context around it.

I knew exactly why. My red corduroy overalls had buttons on the shoulders to hold up the straps, and I couldn’t get them unbuttoned by myself in time to make it to the bathroom. Although my speaking ability was well ahead of most for my age, I guess my brain and tongue weren’t coordinated enough to articulate a coherent, complex sentence to explain myself. I looked up at my mother in silence. No words would come out. I don’t remember what happened after that.

This is my first memory, and is it accurate? I believe it is, especially now that I have a lot of context around it. Reliable relatives tell me I talked very early, by the time I was a year old. Within a month or so after that, I’d bypassed the “baby talk” and spoke in complete grammatical sentences. My mother told me that when I wanted a drink of water, I would say, “Mommy, may I have a drink of water in the little yellow cup?” That cup was soft plastic, with little blue drawings of the nursery rhyme “Hey, diddle diddle.” There were drawings of the cat with a fiddle, the cow jumping over the moon, a little dog laughing, and a dish and a spoon holding hands. Definitely a more pleasant memory than my first.

My mother and grandmother also told me that I was toilet trained very early. Coming from a background of being a working mother and wanting children out of diapers as soon as possible, my grandmother trained me. Although I remember none of the training, I was amenable to it, so the timing of this memory makes sense. So does my mother’s behavior.

This was the mid-1950s, and my mother, who had been an up and coming textile designer in New York before I was born, was stuck at home with me–this odd child who looked like her mother-in-law, whom she hated. Mom was so talented that the company wanted her to return to work, and my grandmother, who lived with us a lot of the time, offered to take care of me. But the social pressure was too much, and mom stayed home, which was probably one of the biggest mistakes of her life. By the time she did go back to work, in a less high-powered job, I was 11 and my brother Allan 7, and the damage to all of us had been done.

As much as I now understand her frustration–lack of creativity, not enough money, dislike of a suburban lifestyle, and a child she didn’t understand–unfortunately I remember the drama, yelling, fights, and fear most vividly and still have to make an effort to remember the better times. My mother did nearly all the yelling, and the more she yelled, the quieter I got. Once I remember her screaming at Allan, who must have been about 10 at the time, and him saying, “Mom, just go ahead and hit me, but please stop screaming!” When I was about 14 or 15, I recall her screaming at me, “Why don’t you ever tell me anything?” and I answered, “Because I can’t get a word–or an emotion–in edgewise.”

In my last two years of high school, when I had more independence, I tried to be out of the house as much as possible, at school, clubs, and play rehearsals. When I was home, I went to my room to study. The disconnection continued, waxing and waning depending on the circumstances, all through my 20s, with periods of estrangement.

As an adult I have worked hard to rebuild the relationship with my mom, especially after my father died in 2001. It’s taken a lot of effort, but thankfully we are on much better terms now. I often wonder what a more peaceful and supportive childhood would have been like.

Author’s note: This has been the most difficult and painful story I’ve written on Retrospect, but I feel good about writing it for the trusted community that we have. And, I have a new perspective on why I can’t stand to wear red.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Mare…thank you so much for trusting us with this story. I’m choked up as I’m writing. Of course I’m glad you have a good relationship with your mom now, but today her behavior would be considered abusive. Beyond that, I’m not going to preach. I’m just glad all that yelling and screaming didn’t stop you from turning into the incredibly intelligent, beautiful, sensitive, creative woman you are.

    Red is not only a primary color but it’s primal…imbued with a wide range of energy, meaning, and emotion. Maybe because we all bleed red, it’s also the thread that connects us. You don’t need to wear red…you are seen. ❤️

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, Barb, that means so much. It amazes me how much our attitudes toward certain behaviors has changed in the last 60 years. I wish there had been something like “parenting” classes or therapy back then. I am very thankful to my grandmother, who provided some stability. Other relatives tried to help but weren’t around enough to have a big impact.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    As painful as this story was for you, Marian, I hope it is cathartic for you as well. Certainly, from our standpoint as your readers, it was amazing — and, of course, troubling — how this one earliest memory had such an impact on your life. And that the memory both reflected the broader issues of your relationship with your mother and the more abstract one as to your aversion to red.

    Very brave!

  3. Marian, I for one am honored that you trust us, your Retro friends enough to share your painful story.

    The fact you are so kindly working to heal your relationship with your mother is already healing you. The leader in a human potential workshop I once took told us, “forgive your parents, they did the best they could.”

    Sending virtual hugs!

    • Marian says:

      Very much appreciated, Dana, and I agree with the leader’s quote. I’m also gratified that my mother and my niece have a really good relationship. The presence of a grandparent can be so steadying.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, thanks for sharing this story. It brought me to tears. I have an early memory similar to yours that I did not share in my story. It likely happened before the one I did share. My mother claimed she had me trained by age one. While I find that hard to believe, I’m sure I was trained before my brother was born when I was shy of 2-1/2. I had a toileting accident when he was a tiny baby. I recall my mother screaming at me as I hid behind the sofa. I guess there were no parenting books back them to explain that regression when sibs came along was normal and common. Aside from the screaming, I remember my shame.

    • Marian says:

      I believe those toilet training claims, Laurie, seems like it was the practice back then. I’m so sorry you went through that terrible memory. I too was embarrassed (shamed?) and so frustrated that my mind was ahead of my speech at that time. I don’t believe that adults in the 1950s understood the impact of constant screaming and yelling at kids or at each other.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Oh Marian, thank you for sharing so much with us. You sound like an amazing little girl. What a vocabulary you had at such a young age. But what a turbulent life. You’ve read about my mother for years, so you know I understand completely. I reach out and hold you in our sisterhood of frustrated mothers. Mine had other issues, but the results were often the same. My kind, nurturing father has been gone much longer (January, 1990) and I took care of my mother for the last 15 years of her life. I respect you for working on that relationship. I took care of my mother, but was never very patient with her. At our mother’s funeral, my brother spoke of that generation’s frustration in not being able to go out and accomplish what their brains and training made them fit to do. Instead, they stayed home and raised us, for better or worse. You and I found our own paths. I admire you for that.

    • Marian says:

      I thought of you and your trials with your mother while writing this story, Betsy, and your sharing encouraged me. While I’m not involved with my mom’s care day to day, I’m constantly on the phone with her. In non-COVID times I was helping her a lot, but I feel fortunate that she physically is in good shape and can still do a lot for herself. I constantly have to work on my patience, and it doesn’t get easier, but it’s worth the effort.

  6. Suzy says:

    Marian, what a sad memory, and almost certainly accurate, as you say. Your brother hadn’t been born yet, so it wasn’t a sibling rivalry situation like Laurie’s. And those overalls were hard to get off! Thank you for sharing it with us, and also for telling us that it was painful to write. I’m sorry it was so painful, but I hope it was also cathartic. And good for you for working so hard to rebuild your relationship with your mother now.

    • Marian says:

      You’re right, Suzy, couldn’t have been a sibling rivalry issue. I think it was pretty much what I thought it was. Now I understand that my interaction with my mother had a whole lot less to do with whatever I had done and more to do with what kind of day she was having–very confusing for a child. Had to work up to writing this story, but I’m glad I did.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    We remember things deeply from childhood our whole lives, whether we know it or not. It is also humbling to realize that things we do affect others intensely in ways we may not be aware of. There are recurrent themes from the 1950’s of mothers stifled by expectations their lives would consist of nothing but having children and doing homemaking–and what a toll on us all, straining our resilience. So glad to hear you were able to have some rapprochement and move forward. Thanks for your honesty and sharing.

  8. Brava, Marian. I’m glad you shared your story with us. Odd, I just responded to Barbara”s point about how her writing about her experiences seems to encapsulate then in a bubble: I mentioned that reliving/reworking early (and later) trauma is a time-honored way of diminishing, or at least, right-sizing it.

  9. Marian, when one decides to be brave and write about topics and experiences that make you emotionally vulnerable, it is quite possible to pay less attention to the craft of writing; I have seen this at times with my undergrad and graduate students. What is remarkable here is that you not only broached and described a very difficult memory, but you managed to uphold the highest standards of writing. An interesting exercise (to evaluate the clarity of a narrative) is just to read the first sentence of each paragraph. If you do that here, you’ll see there is a logical and compelling progression, from straight-up description of one incident, to introspection about that incident, to retrospective reflection, analysis, and contextualization of that one memory, to a deeper search for the sociological truths that underlay the incident. It’s a tour de force and I join others in thanking you for trusting us as readers.

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, Dale. I think more than 40 years of “commercial” writing practice actually helps when it comes to expressing difficult emotional topics. The writing experience kept the mechanics in the background and let me focus on the painful event.

  10. I just want to add that people DID KNOW all about good parenting back in that time. There was a phenomenal group of women that had articulated, since earlier in the 20th century, what we now call the principles of “developmentally appropriate practice.” These principles were promoted by the National Association for Nursery Education (later renamed as the NAEYC). Among its leaders were Abigail Adams Elliott, Radcliffe ‘1914, (whose name is on the Elliott-Pearson School at Tufts University). When I say PEOPLE KNEW, I mean of course, “some people.” The corporate, political, and economic leadership certainly did not take any of these women or their insights seriously. And a lot of suffering resulted from that.

    • Marian says:

      This is great, Dale. I didn’t know about these women and they sound progressive and impressive. Will definitely check them out. Mills, my alma mater, has a very respected child development program and children’s school, but I never paid attention to when it was established. More research is in order for me.

  11. Thanks, Marian. You really caught the sense of entrapment and futility that so many mothers/wives felt in those constricting days and how their frustration played out. I’m relieved to hear that you at returned to address the scars with her. And I’m glad she was able to respond without closing down. But whew! Don’t those early days last! Beautifully described.

    • Marian says:

      Charles, I’m sure many women in our parents’ generation must have gone through something similar, yet I never noticed it when I was a child and the women didn’t talk about it. Hence Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”

  12. Yeah, Marian. You are so right. Even in my parents left-progressive circles, few women made it back out into the job market that was swiftly co-opted by men again, after women had worked so powerfully during WWII. I’m guessing your mother’s professional life had been built during the late Depression or War Years.

    Paradoxically, my father wanted my mother to work after us kids had safely landed in school. He was blacklisted from his days in the CPUSA and had a difficult time finding and keeping work. Although she had trained and worked as a social worker first in Oakland and then in NYC during the Depression, she demurred during the house & home 1950s.

    Friedan opened the windows to let the light in, and then came the tsunami of second-wave feminism. I wrote about all this (including my mother’s re-awakening) on Retro at, should you be interested.

    • Marian says:

      Charles, it’s fascinating how the women became tongue tied in effect, buying into the myth that they should stay home. My mother started working immediately post war, and the design industry hadn’t been as male dominated as others. Ironically, perhaps, her career initially had been more stable than my father’s, but for different reasons than for your parents. After WWII and serving in the navy, my father returned to engineering school and graduated. Being Jewish, he had difficulty finding a good job and ended up working for the state of New Jersey and a few other gigs before finally landing a stable position. It’s thought that our surname, Hirsch, could be interpreted as German, which probably helped. At any rate, can’t wait to read your mom’s story, thanks for the link.

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