One of my favorite things about babies, besides inhaling their hair, is watching them do a whole body startle when something surprises them. It’s a primal reaction we’re all born with. Even in a roomful of adults, if you make a sudden “BANG!” you get a peppering of full body flinches and stifled-staccato screams. The firefighter types always jump to their feet. The rest of the room takes that elongated-voiced inhale scientists say is designed to give us a last good breath.
It wasn’t until a bird broke through a restaurant window and my sister Jennifer and I were the only patrons still sitting, that we realized we had both lost our startle reflex. Somehow, the nerve ganglion preserved through years of evolution to protect us had been severed.
What would cause two sisters to lose this reflex you might ask? We grew up in a home with a screamer. Our mother’s panicked inhalations were heard every time she dropped a spoon, forgot her dentist appointment, or a bookmark fell out of her book. As children, we’d run to her expecting to see fingers or toes lopped off from a dropped knife, but instead would bend over to retrieve a stack of mail that had slipped off the edge of the table. Years of conditioning gradually desensitized us.
This freakish inability to react has made us popular with our daughters; we’ve become a “party game.” The girls pop out of darkened hallways and slam books to the floor in an attempt to make us scream, flinch, inhale, look up…anything. When both our families went to an amusement park together, the girls delighted in the knowledge that I had moaned a little going down the steepest roller coaster hill. Finally a reaction!
There are times when living with a screamer is a lot more fun. Any good news shared with my mother, and you need a spatula to scrape her off the ceiling. Even on long distance telephone calls, she reacts with over-the-top-glee at a report of a lost tooth. When, in my own calm way, I compliment my daughter Emily on her art project, Emily finishes with, “Thanks Mom, I think I’ll go call Gram.” I’ve tried faking excitement, but everyone just laughs. It’s as obvious as a put-on-sneeze. My day is coming though. When Emily starts to drive, she’ll appreciate having a passenger who doesn’t squeal at every mailbox you almost hit and who doesn’t yell, “STOP!” at yellow traffic lights. Yes, my day will come.