That’s how we say it in my family. One word. Like Supercalafragelistic. Or Fugheddaboudit. I have no idea how it started but when I was a kid I insisted upon it. Once tucked in, I would say it: SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight. And then my mom or dad had to say it back: SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight. My parents thought it more sweet than OCD and in fact, we still say it when I go home to visit. I don’t insist on it anymore – which is good, because I’m 37. But truth be told, I prefer to say it than not.
As a kid I was into rituals. In addition to SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight, every evening I’d set up a pair of shoes by my bed, heels together toes out, because I’d learned from Reading Rainbow that this would keep evil spirits away. When I woke up, I would go straight to the piano to play the right-hand part of Mouret’s Rondeau–the opening theme of Masterpiece Theater. A perfect run was a good omen. As you can see, PBS had a strong influence on me. It was all that my parents watched and one of the few channels that came in on our crappy black-and-white television.
My rituals, like most rituals, were an attempt to control forces beyond me, an appeal for well-being. Once I got to school everything was out of my hands. I was skinny, shy, prone to getting lost in my own thoughts, and constantly setting off social tripwires. If I wasn’t saying the wrong thing, I was bringing the wrong lunch or wearing the wrong ski jacket. Since I couldn’t predict when I’d screw up, I tried to blend into the wall. Invisibility equaled peace.
As a young kid, I blamed myself for my inability to fit in. Clearly I was just inherently flawed. But over time it dawned on me that it was actually my parents’ fault. Who put a lamb chop wrapped in wax paper in my lunchbag? Who bought the off-brand ski jacket at the Bargain Center? Who left New York to plop our Jewish, olive-skinned family in a town full of white pasty Irish Catholics, simply so my dad could be a professor? Toward the end of elementary school, I sometimes fantasized that my parents would die forcing me to live with their friends in California who had an in-ground pool and three kids who each had their own TVs. They would buy me Nintendo and a full wardrobe of Esprit clothing. I could start over in a place where my reputation was not indelibly set as the weird girl.
By the time I was 13, I was fully irascible but significantly less isolated. I had developed a close group of girlfriends, and while neither cool nor terribly popular, I was no longer a constant target. I spent the summer of 1988 working as a junior camp counselor at a day camp, leading six year olds in choruses of Boom-Chikka-Boom, and nights and weekends out with my girlfriends. As we were good girls, “out” generally meant, the mall, the movies or someone’s house making rice krispie treats. But that was OK. If I was home, I was lame. If I was out, I was alright.
It was in the middle of that summer that my dad went to a Physics conference in Pittsburgh. We often tacked our family vacations on to his conferences–frequently to places I didn’t want to go, like Bozeman, Montana. But because it was Pittsburgh, this year the family-vacation part had gotten nixed.
The night before he left, my dad knocked on my bedroom door and stuck his head in. “SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight!” he said cheerily.
“Dad, you need to wait for me to say ‘Come in’.” He closed the door and this time knocked. This irritated me more. “Just come in,” I said. He opened the door.
“I’m leaving early, so I’m going to say goodbye now,” he said.
“Say goodbye in the morning.”
“You really want me to wake you up?” The dubiousness was fair; the next day was Sunday and most weekends I slept until noon.
“No,” I said still staring at my book. “I’ll get up on my own.” As he closed the door, it was on the tip of my tongue: SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight. But because I was annoyed, I didn’t say it.
When I woke up at noon, he was gone. I felt a pang of guilt, but forgot it when Marie called to ask if I wanted to watch Top Gun in her basement with our other friends. Marie O’Neal was my best friend; her basement was our regular summer hangout because it had air conditioning, an orange shag rug for lounging, and an excellent selection of snacks.
It was early evening and we were sprawled and stuffing ourselves with Cool Ranch Doritos when Mrs. O’Neal yelled down to say that my mom was on the phone. Annoyed at being forced to move, I hauled myself off the carpet and trudged upstairs.
I picked up the receiver. “Yup?”
“Your sister won’t go to bed until she tells you something,” my mom said.
My sister was 7 and stubborn, so this didn’t surprise me.
“Fine,” I said. “Put her on.”
My sister got on and immediately I could tell she’d been crying.
“What’s wrong?” I said, not entirely sympathetically. At the time she fell into the category of wrongs-done-me-by-my-family; she was more popular and sportier than I had been at her age, and her cheery existence dented my theory that our parents ruined lives.
She sobbed and didn’t answer.
“What’s wrong?” I said again.
She said something I couldn’t understand: “Da-ee eye,” she sniffed.
“What? I said.
And suddenly I got it: Daddy died.
“What?” I whispered. There was shuffling as she handed the phone back to my mother. I braced myself against the hall table.
“Is it true?” I asked.
“I’m afraid so,” my mother said. She sounded almost nonchalant.
“Can you come get me?”
“Aren’t the O’Neals driving you home?”
“Can you come get me?” I said again, and perhaps hearing my distress, my mother agreed.
“Well…alright. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
I hung up the phone and stood for a moment. Then I opened the basement door, walked down a few steps and sat down on the stairs.
Below me, my friends were lazing where I’d left them. On TV, Maverick and Goose were getting reamed out by their commanding officer for flying below 10,000 feet. It was quiet except for the TV and the crunching of doritos. I tried to think of what I was supposed to do. My thoughts were like vapor. They formed and disappeared. I sat with my hands in my lap. Eventually someone looked up. “Are you OK?”
“My dad died,” I said.
Suddenly they were running up the stairs, hugging me, asking me what happened. I didn’t know. Marie ran to tell her parents. I felt numb. Then there was the sound of a stampede; Marie’s parents had been told. Arms hauled me into the dining room and placed me in a chair. Marie’s mom kept her hands on my shoulders.
“Honey, what happened?” she asked. I said again that I didn’t know–it hadn’t occurred to me to find out. Maybe the plane went down. Maybe it was a heart attack. I could see my friends crying but couldn’t hear them. It was as if someone had turned the volume down and there was only the one thought repeating: Daddy died. I hadn’t said goodbye.
“Can I get you some water?” Marie’s mom asked. I shook my head. Everyone stared at me. I stared at a spot in the middle of the table and tried to make myself feel something. Daddy died. My dad who went bird watching in the neighborhood with binoculars, making me terrified that people would think he was a peeping Tom. My dad, who drew my birth announcement, showing my parents as cartoon chickens welcoming an egg. My dad who filled every shelf in our house with antique books from garage sales, who planned all our vacations, who smelled like Old Spice when he’d kiss me goodnight after he and my mom went on dates. Would we still go on vacation? Would we move? Would my mom marry someone else?
After a few minutes Marie’s mom asked if I wanted to lie down on the couch. I shook my head again and then suddenly like vomit coming up, adrenaline flooded my body. I got up and ran to the front door and outside. Everyone chased after me. I got to the middle of the yard and Marie’s dad grabbed me and hugged me tight. I sobbed and my knees buckled. I could barely breathe.
It was then that my mother’s white Honda Civic materialized at the corner. She pulled into the driveway, her window down. She looked surprisingly cheerful for a new widow.
Marie’s mom walked up to the car.
“Hallie, I’m so sorry,” she said. “What was it?”
“A hamster,” my mom said. And there it was. A hamster had killed my father. For a moment I imagined it must have been like the story where the mouse kills the elephant by climbing up his trunk. A hamster on the plane. It climbed up my dad’s nose, out of his plastic cup, and suffocated him.
“Excuse me?” said Mrs. O’Neal.
“Naomi’s hamster died,” my mom said, looking increasingly confused, having now taken in the group of weeping eighth grade girls and her prostrate daughter.
“Teddy died?” I said, still clinging to Mr. O’Neal.
“Oh my God, we thought Jerry died!” Mrs. O’Neal said, suddenly comprehending the mistake in identity. Then she began to laugh. And then everyone else laughed. I didn’t. The adrenaline was shifting from grief to humiliation and fury.
“I thought you said Daddy died.” I whispered.
“He’s in Pittsburgh” my mom said. “He called earlier. He’s fine.”
“How could you let me think he was dead?” I yelled.
“How could I know what you thought?” my mother said reasonably, which infuriated me more.
Fully relieved now, my friends were wracked with fits of giggles, Mr. O’Neal doubled over, wiping his twinkly Irish eyes.
“Teddy died!” he cried.
My cheeks burned.
“Do you still want to come home?” my mom said.
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t understand how this could suddenly be hilarious. I had thought my father was dead. That wasn’t funny. I wanted to be alone.
I got in the car and we drove home. I asked if I could skip camp the next day. My mother said no.
I don’t remember my dad coming home, save that by the time he’d arrived I’d gotten over his being dead. I quickly resumed resenting both of my parents. But SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight – I never didn’t say it again. Just in case.
Molly Touger is a Bostonian turned Brooklynite who has, over the course of her career, worked as a journalist, barista, publicist, instructional designer, and busboy. She recently returned from a year serving as communications manager and kayak guide for a nonprofit language school in Mexico’s Zona Maya. Among her favorite things about that job were apprising visitors of the fact that the Maya aren’t dead.
No, YOU Tell It! (NYTI) is a new kind of series that “switches-up” the storytelling. Each NYTI performer writes a true-life tale and then trades with a partner to present each other’s story. A literary reading series and storytelling show, No, YOU Tell It! blends the collaborative process of creative writing workshops with the intimacy and immediacy of theatrical performance to create a charged evening of personal stories.