July 20, 2019

Never Talk While Eating Fish

I’m an only child so I was the whole ball of wax. In many ways, I was my parents’ life. My parents tried to have more children but couldn’t, but I was never privy to why they couldn’t. 

My mother was a very nervous woman. Asking her why she was so nervous made her even more nervous. She’d often say things like, “I’m a nervous wreck.” “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat.” And, of course, “Nobody cares about me.” Sorry to say I believe she really felt that no one cared. She never saw how charmed her life was. Living always seemed to be a chore for her. 

My mother was much more worried about my safety than my father. When I’d walk from one room to another, she’d tell me to call her when I got there. When I was in the bathroom, she’d ask me half a dozen times if I was all right. My father would yell, “Did you fall in?” 

When my mother made soup, even if it wasn’t hot, she did everything short of putting a warning label on the bowl reminding me not to burn my delicate tongue. 

If my mother served fish, she’d repeatedly warn me about the possibility of bones and choking to death. She’d say, “Never talk when you’re eating fish. You could choke.” So, I became very afraid of eating fish. Why is it that when fish eat other fish, they never choke? 

If my parents were alive today, my mother would probably own a small, home X-ray machine to screen fish for hidden bones. 

My mother was a very nervous woman. Asking her why she was so nervous made her even more nervous. 

My father, on the other hand, was much more easy-going. He’d tell my mother, “Leave him alone.” “Let him live in peace. You’re making him crazy.” My mother would shoot back, “Fine. He can do anything he wants. And if anything happens to him, I’ll hold you personally responsible.” 

This went on for most of my childhood. I constantly felt watched over and reminded of potential catastrophes that might befall me. “Don’t climb on ladders you might fall.” “Don’t sit in front of an air conditioner if your hair is wet. You’ll get pneumonia.” “Don’t sit too close to the TV. You’ll hurt your eyes.” “Don’t make faces or your face will stay like that.” “Don’t go on terraces. You might fall off.” If a glass broke, my mother would yell, “Get away from the glass! You’ll cut yourself!” Almost everything had disaster tied to it. 

That was how my mother viewed life: There was only a slight chance anything would work out. For years after moving out of their house, I felt helpless in many situations. I feared touching things because I might break them or be injured. I had to learn about life from Square One. So began my journey learning how to survive. I know my mother loved me and wanted to protect me. The result was a healthy diet of “you can’t.” 

I struggled for a long time and had many more insecurities than I probably would otherwise have had. To this day, I check the rim of every glass I’m drinking from or jar that I open because I’m
scared of swallowing glass. A few times, when I thought I might have swallowed some glass, I just sat patiently and waited to see if I was going to bleed to death internally. 

I accept that that’s life. Truth be told, I’m fine with it. The lessons from my upbringing were the lessons I needed to learn in life. I think sometimes people have to experience certain things in order to be able to help other people who are going through similar things. To say, “I know what you’re going through” can go a long way in helping people. 

I wonder what I’ve put my kids through. They haven’t told me or written about me. But this is Hollywood. So maybe one of them will pin something on me and make a few bucks, if they don’t spend it on therapy, like I did. 


Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.