My mother chose words like gems she needed to pluck from a pile of baubles and trinkets. She never settled for the first, easily discovered word. Her hands, increasingly crippled over time by a relentless disease that twisted her limbs, would move gently through the air as she searched for the right descriptive.
He was. . .recalcitrant. She might say, in describing her grandfather. She was infatuated when she met my father, at seventeen. He, the handsome man who walked up and down the aisles of her high school business class reciting the letter A,S,D,F for the left hand, H,J,K,L for the right, was dapper. Even debonair.
As a writer, I find myself longing for her expertise. Eighteen years after her death, I look up from a cup of luke-warm tea, curled up on my old lounge chair on a chilly afternoon, wishing she could weigh in as I muse over the page. I examine the shadows, half hoping she’s there, that I might catch a mellifluous whisper.
I’m searching for words, I want to tell her, that will make my readers’ heartbeats accelerate. Words that are sweet to taste, like honey on a spoon, that pull one sentence to another, like we used to watch the taffy be pulled in the summer time at the Jersey shore. Words that stretch. Words that wake us up to all the possibilities of prose. Words that shift the lens from blurry to startlingly clear.
I say to my ghost mother, who is as real to me as the characters that gather in my mind, hesitantly perched on rickety chairs, “Here is my struggling scene, still embryonic:
My character is not just old but . . very, very old? The beer he drinks is too warm, because he neglected to drink it quickly, caught in the web of and old man’s thoughts. The cane, dragged across a room, makes that scratchy noise. What is that sound? And the first star that has pushed into the twilight sky, early and unexpected while the sun sets, awakens in the old man a sliver of hope, a feeling so unusual it pains his slowing heart. But not hope, that is too mundane, too pedestrian, an overused word altogether.”
And my mother reaches across the divide of time and space, from death to life, from the Elysian Islands to San Francisco, and forces the words out of my unconscious and onto the page. As she once guided my steps as I wobbled across the wet grass, or my hand as she taught me to write letters with long, guiding strokes.
The man is not just old, he is archaic. The beer is tepid. His cane rasps across the rotting wooden floor. And the hope he feels, as the first star appears? Just a sliver of expectation, a breath of anticipation. Perhaps a slight shiver, in recognition of his previous sanguinity?
Yes. That’s it. A recognition of previous sanguinity.
My mother instilled in me a hunger for the right word, and then fed them to me with each meal. Words that stretched like my grilled Swiss cheese sandwiches, words as tart as her apricot and plum pie, words that dripped like honey from the spoon, words that wafted like the steam now wafts from my fresh cup of tea.