The Daddy Who Could Not Talk

In 1986, my friend Cheri Bladholm, an illustrator, called with a question. A publisher wanted to see what she could do with a story. It could be any story, just not one they’d seen a hundred times before. Did I know an obscure fairy tale that hadn’t already been illustrated many times? I didn’t, but I offered to write her a story. She could be sure it was original. It would be fun. She accepted, and I wrote “The Daddy Who Could Not Talk.” Cheri did a few full pages and some sketches of the in-between pages and sent them off.

But Cheri, who has talent that could not go unappreciated for long, was soon busy with other work, and my story took a nap. After seeing another story (“The Adirondack Run”) through to publication, I remembered Cheri and the story I’d written for her. I didn’t even have a copy anymore. But she did. And because she remains very much in demand, “The Daddy…” continues to slumber.

But in reading it again, for the first time in 20 years, I liked it. So here it is. I ask you to imagine the pictures. Our story teller is a little girl; I’ll let her tell you the rest…

* * *

When I was very, very little — so small I could be wrapped in a blanket and cradled on just one of Nanny’s arms — I discovered that my Daddy could not talk.

Not that he was completely silent. He could hum, and murmur, and even make a noise that sounded like “Harumph,” but real words — like those Mommy and Nanny used — real words never passed his lips.

How sad, I thought, to be so silent. To be so big, and so handsome, and yet not be able to speak.

I wanted Daddy to learn how to talk. But the other people in our house were no help at all. Whenever Daddy opened his mouth, someone would rush to him and do whatever it was that needed to be done, before he spoke a word. If Daddy appeared in the front hall, Maurice the butler would hand him his hat. If he sat in a chair and wiggled his eyebrows, Evans would bring him a newspaper, or a letter on a silver tray, or something to drink in a sparkly glass.

When Mommy spoke to him, Daddy would nod, or shake his head, and she knew exactly what he wanted, before he said it.

After months of careful watching, I saw that if Daddy was ever going to learn to talk, I would have to teach him. After all, I was learning myself. I could say “bird,” and “button,” and “butter.” And soon, I was sure, I would know all the other words.

The hard part was going to be finding the right time. I never saw Daddy at meals. I ate in the kitchen in a tall chair with my own tray, with Cook and the maids at table.

When I did get to see Daddy, it was usually through a window, or an open door. Or sometimes at the end of the day, he would rush by, wearing a tall black hat, and step out into the night with Mommy on his arm in a beautiful white dress. And I was swept upstairs to bed.

But then, I learned to crawl. And I knew that Daddy could not hide forever. I would teach him to talk even if I had to look for him in every room of the house.

My first chance came one evening when Cook dropped a pot. She closed her eyes and held her ears. That was it. I slipped out of my tall chair, down the legs to the floor, and made my way under the table and towards the door.

It was so easy. No one looked down, and the door swung open into the dining room with one good push. The table was as white as a bed, but very high. I crawled to its edge, lifted the ruffle and looked underneath. I could see shoes. And all the way up, Daddy’s, the shiniest shoes of all.

I made my way carefully through the shadows until I could touch Daddy’s black shoes. I grabbed the cuff of his pants and pulled myself up. I felt the tablecloth brush over my hair, and then everything was very bright, and Daddy was looking right at me. I smiled.

“Da-da,” I said. Daddy’s lips opened and closed, like the fish in the aquarium in the study. His eyes grew very wide. I just knew a word was going to come out.

But suddenly I was swept up by Nanny, and she was talking, not Daddy. Saying, “Oh, sir,” and “I’m so very sorry, Sir.”

The next morning, lying in my crib, watching the birds outside my window, I knew I would have to find Daddy alone. Or others would always take the words from his mouth. And he would never know the joy of talking for himself.

After lunch, I was in the little bed that I slept in during nap time. The nursery window was open, and my eyes were open, and the birds seemed to call to me. So I got up and out. Climbing over the rails for the very first time. This was no time to be afraid.

I went to the window and there outside, down in the garden, was Daddy. All alone. Wearing a white jacket and a white hat and white gloves with fat fingers. He was digging with a little pointed shovel, on his hands and knees, and humming like the bees.

The nursery door was open just a little bit, and I squeezed through. The steps seemed very high, but I bumped, bumped, bumped down them feet first. And in the quiet of the afternoon, I made my way onto the porch, and then out the screened door.

The breeze was fresh, and the grass was cool and prickly under my fingers. Daddy was closer and closer. And then I saw something in the shade of the flowers, glowing in the quiet light under their bright petals, down at the bottoms of the green stems, on the soft, brown dirt. It was gold, like the sun, with a white face, like the clouds, with a crystal like a mirror, and little black arms that moved inside as it ticked.

I reached in, picked up Daddy’s watch, and held it out to him. His eyes grew wide, and his lips moved, and he looked around. No one came. And then he looked at me again, took a breath, and said, “Thank you, Abbie.”

I was so proud of him. I smiled while he brushed the dirt off his watch. And then I thought, “I might not get another chance like this for weeks,” so I pointed to a flower.

“Lavender,” he said.

I pointed to another.

“Delphinium,” he said.

I had truly believed Daddy could learn to talk, but even I was surprised at how fast he was learning.

“Hollyhocks,” he said. “Daisies,” he said.

And then I heard the door and felt the footsteps of Nanny coming, short and fast, and I felt the sudden cool of her shadow. And as she opened her lips to speak, Daddy took the words from her mouth.

“Abigail is with me, Nanny. She’s just fine right now.”

And so my Daddy learned to talk. And even though everyone else pretended not to notice, I will always be secretly very proud of how I taught him.

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