The shy are sensitive souls, full of a terror of exposure of self. As children their night prayer included a request to the comic character, Nemo, who never left home without disappearing cream.
Neutrality of response is the shy’s goal. The shy revere Cal Coolidge, not only for being one of us Vermonters, but for -being elected president with perhaps the deepest unassuming character of them all. We shy found this detachment from “personality,” as it was called in those pre-worship-of-noise days, quite becoming. Cal Coolidge, even today, retains his potential to become the poster child in the losing war against noise and vapid speech.
He is our hero, we shy. If we were not reticent we would take out an ad, showing folks drowning in chatter, with a photo of Cal, sitting alone with a calm demeanor in eyes and body, with his words, our motto, printed without background music, “ If you do not say anything, you will not be called upon to repeat it.” The innate hunger for notice has been under or over fed in the shy’s family, by silent ancestors, wary brain cells, as well as emotional trauma and the curse of the blush.
How about a black and white photo of straw-hatted Cal, sitting alone with that calm demeanor of eye and body, with his words, our motto, printed without background music: “If you do not say anything, you will not be called upon to repeat it.” The innate hunger for notice was vastly overfed in the shy’s family. Ancestors, genes, emotional trauma, and the curse of the blush combined to make the shy suspect any and all attention.
In kindergarten as my mother let go of my hand, I felt the presence of others as enemy, personified in Sister Aurleia in starched wimple telling me repeatedly that I would be all right and not to worry, beginning a lifelong rage at these seemingly calming words that unfailingly roiled both my sweat glands and soul. When Sister took my hand, the urge to cry curdled to shame. I sought refuge in the waxed floor, picturing a cave, a tree, a shed, now pawing one foot like an anxious horse. Sister calls me by my complete formal name; the sound magnifies, echoes down the canyon of my head. My pink face bleeds to scarlet, a red bulb replaces my head, reaches explosion level when an unshy classmate yells, “Look, he’s blushing.” Oh, where is Nemo and his cream?
“Would you come see Billy with me in the forenoon tomorrow?” my father asked. Startled, I nodded in his direction.
He read the curiosity and the acceptance. “It’s Billy McGettrick, he’s sick, and all alone, and unable to speak.”
I wondered how my shy father, the mute Billy and self-conscious me would pull off a visit. In a dark living room sat Billy in a wheelchair. An open wound oozing from his throat, stale air and a faint smell of urine increased fear as Billy’s rhythmic animal-like breathing filled the room. Sitting on a cluttered sofa we looked at one another.
“How be ya Billy?”
Billy nodded his head, up and down, paused, then sideways as his blue eyes danced in his crimson face. No words came.
The brown bag crackled as my father, one hand over his heart, bent and handed it to Billy. The bag rustled loudly as he opened and looked. The jowly red face lit up. Reaching in he pulled out a large tomato, redder than his face, with traces of yellow and two green streaks. He grasped the tomato in his palm, head nodding. He raised the tomato, as if toasting my father, tears falling in large drops. My father now joined him in head nodding, and so did I for silent minutes. This exchange led to a longer pause.
My father stood. Billy shook my hand, then he shook my father’s hand for a long time saying not a word. I made a move toward a shake that changed to a small wave at Billy. I did not look down, taking in the pleasure in his pink face and the blue eyes dancing in satisfaction. His smile filled me, and the nodding head held me in an embrace.
Neither my father nor I could speak. We shook hands and left. Six weeks later, Billy died.
I remain shy. But that visit changed my view of shyness, particularly shy men. I feel drawn to them and think the world would be a kinder place with more of them.
Raymond Lovett is a psychotherapist with a practice in Dorset.