Perspectives: My Year of Big Talk

A writer with deep Pittsburgh roots learns from her mother that ”When you can make your small talk bigger, your relationships become deeper, more meaningful.”

Why’d you move to Pittsburgh?”

People always expect a short, innocuous answer — for work, for school. For my family, the answer is long and deeply personal.

It was 1988. I was a toddler, and my mother needed a heart transplant. At the time, only UPMC and Stanford University had done more than a few of them; Stanford didn’t think it could get her a heart in time. So we sold our house in Florida, moved into an apartment in Shadyside, and my mom got her new heart in February 1989.

She’s lived here ever since. And ever since, that simple question has led to a lengthy story about an incredibly painful period of our lives. One, at least, that seemed to have a happy ending. That heart has lasted my mom 30 years, and we are immensely grateful.

Of course, life doesn’t always end with the happy ending. We want it to. When we tell stories about ourselves, we wrap them up into tight little bows — happy sound bites about how things worked out. We have our choreographed cocktail party selves, repeating the same stories over and over again.

There is safety in those stories, safety in not revealing too much of ourselves.

“What have you been up to lately?”

Is there any piece of small talk more banal? Any question vaguer, lazier? But recently, I haven’t known how to answer it. My social media pages are still full of smiling pictures — because what else can you put on social media, without becoming that annoying friend whining for validation?

But that’s not my life.

What have I been up to, really? In the fall of 2018, my mother got sick again. After 30 years, that heart is on its last legs. I asked my fiancé to move up our wedding so she could be there. He called off the wedding instead. The house was in his name, so I put all my stuff in storage while I tried to promote the novel I’d dedicated to him — an accomplishment that once filled me with pride but now felt tainted. I quit a job I loved, writing for a hit TV show, and left behind the support system I’d built in Los Angeles, moving back into my parents’ house in Pittsburgh. For how long, we don’t know.

I don’t have small talk right now. I only have big talk. And you know what? It’s been eye opening.

In the past year, I’ve learned more about friends, acquaintances, even strangers, than I ever expected. Because I answer honestly when someone asks me, “What are you up to?” That honest response leads to conversations unlike any I’ve had before. It turns out, the act of opening up, of sharing some private piece of yourself, fundamentally shifts the conversation. By becoming vulnerable, you create the space for others to be vulnerable, too.

I think there’s some part of all of us aching to share our angst, disappointment, doubt. To bond with another human being over the fact that, hey, things didn’t turn out the way I wanted either. To confide that this picture-perfect life I seem to have isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That the stories I thought would lead to happy endings turned out to have sad ones.

It’s a secret my mother has known for years — every time someone asked her where she was from, and she gave her long, personal answer. When you can make your small talk bigger, your relationships become deeper, more meaningful. That’s why I moved back to Pittsburgh, by the way — to have meaningful conversations with her, for as long as she’s here. It’s been a devastating, humbling, life-changing year.

And, strangers, I can be honest: nothing about it has been easy.

We can’t always make our marriages work. We can’t always find someone to marry in the first place; we can’t always have children. We might not achieve the career goals we dream of. We might never make our parents proud. We can’t save the people we love from dying. All we can do is acknowledge, to ourselves and others, that life is full of pain and loneliness. And if we can do that, then at the very least, we might discover that there are other people in the same boat with us.

Sarah Tarkoff is a novelist and television writer whose TV credits include “Arrow,” “Mistresses” and “Witches of East End.” The first two books of her YA sci-fi series, “Sinless” and “Fearless,” are in stores now; the final installment, “Ruthless,” will be published this spring. An alumna of North Allegheny High School, Tarkoff graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in screenwriting (hence all the screenwriting) and currently lives in the North Hills.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly, Community Feature, Hot Reads