Dedicated to my cousin, Dr. Jennifer Wallace.
I love how my mother loved to write letters. She’d buy those long yellow notebooks by the packet and kept stacks of reserves on top of the kitchen fridge. She burnt through them almost as fast as the cigarettes she smoked when she curled up at the kitchen table to write, pen in one hand, lit Salem in the other, one foot on the chair, knee to her chest.
From what I recall, she mostly wrote to her sisters: her older sisters Ruth and Doris, and her younger sister Janet. (Mom was the sixth of seven kids … though the oldest baby died at childbirth).
As a kid I always held a special expectation at Christmas for the packages we’d get from my mom’s sisters Janet and Doris.
Their contents never had anything to do with whatever I’d petitioned Santa for. As a result, the annual postmarks from Coopersburg, PA (Janet), and Dayton, Ohio (Doris) always heralded a surprise or two.
ESPECIALLY Aunt Janet’s. Her boxes always contained the quirkiest, goofiest, orneriest stuff, which was very much in keeping with her personality. You never knew what you were going to get, and were never disappointed. It was stuff that always left you asking where on earth did she find that? The stuff that made you smile long after the Christmas glow had died to embers. Having to wait until Christmas morning to open Janet’s gifts was always excruciating.
By contrast, Aunt Doris’ stuff was usually a lot more austere, reflecting her personality. Doris was a business school graduate. I never saw her much, but I perceived her as pretty serious, worldly, super smart, professional (in the days when that was not what society necessarily expected of its women). Her holiday packages were always distinguished by a large can of Planter’s peanuts for Dad. Every now and then Dad would get a tall can of cashews. My childhood self registered this as lavish. Although Dad (and I) loved peanuts, we never splurged on them, never had them in the house. In my childhood memory I perceived cashews to be an extravagance beyond our means. It’s funny to think about now, but I always ascribed a special ‘fanciness’ to Aunt Doris’ annual cans of Planter’s. Overall, though, her gifts were practical, not spectacular. While always welcome, the arrival of her Christmas packages never registered the same high level of anticipation as Aunt Janet’s.
Until 1987 and the Christmas of my senior year of high school. In the annual package from Aunt Doris there was a surprise – a special gift for me. Last Christmas before college, I remember allowing myself high expectations for what was inside. It was big. Felt heavy in my lap. Too heavy for peanuts. I unwrapped it in earnest … to discover … a red, hardcover Webster’s College Dictionary, along with a note wishing me well in college. Really? A dictionary? I remember at the time putting it in the same category as getting a pair of socks. I considered it about the worst Christmas gift my 17-year-old self could imagine. She didn’t get me the way that Aunt Janet did, I remember thinking at the time.
Fast forward to my first fall in college. I’m totally freaked out. Completely untethered. Other than a friend I graduated with who commuted, I knew no one. Had no idea what I wanted to study. Wasn’t sure if I was even cut out for college. Fear can be a powerful motivator, though. I paid the fuck attention to everything.
Though I hadn’t declared a major, my advisor was in the English department, and taught my freshman Honors English class. An intimidating presence. A mythic figure. A poet, rumored to have hung around with some of the Beats.
Towering. Thin. Tan. Bald. Salt and pepper beard. Always a brown leather jacket. Dark glasses that hid eyes that had seen some things, and could see straight through you. Unrepentantly smoked like a stack in class. Would stand his butts upright like spent bullet shells in a line on the desk next to the lectern he loomed behind, often balancing on one leg while he drew the other up and rested it on the desk. Wielded silence like an unregistered weapon. Kept his resonant, New York seasoned voice mostly in a slow simmer save for when he’d unleash thunder on the unsuspecting, inattentive, unprepared. His eviscerations of lazy students, and sometimes the entire class, were soul-searing. If you weren’t the target, you’d avert your gaze (suppressing the urge to crawl under your desk), and imagine a pile of smoldering ashes by the time he was through. Since I was a scared shitless clueless freshman, his expectations imprinted me like tattoos I still bear to this day.
He believed unequivocally that readers of good literature and poetry had responsibilities. One was to invest in connecting with the writer’s work. As such, when you came across a word you didn’t know or understand, you were expected to look it up so you could connect your experience and beliefs with the author’s to make meaning. In class, he’d call out a student and ask them the definition of a word in the text. If the student didn’t have it, he called down thunder. My keen sense of self-preservation had me turning to the dictionary with regularity to fill margins in case of emergency. All of a sudden I clung to Aunt Doris’ shitty Christmas present like a life preserver.
Midway through my first semester, some pranksters on our dormitory floor boarded up the entrance to the bathroom and turned on the showers. Returning on Sunday after a weekend home, I found that the dam had burst, flooding the entire floor. Our room was spared major damage, but everything on the floor got soaked. Among the casualties was my red Webster’s. I had to throw away the paper cover, but gave the book itself a chance to dry out, leaving some stiff, wrinkly pages. Otherwise, it was none the worse for wear.
That dictionary served me well through my college years, and made it home with me when I graduated.
As did Dr. Bower’s influence.
When my daughter and I started reading books together, and stumbled across a word she (or we) didn’t know, I’d force us to stop. Tell her she owed it both to herself and the author, and make her look it up. The first book we ever read together was a paperback of the first Harry Potter installment. We read in my room on school nights, and whenever we’d hit an unfamiliar word, I made Em pull out my old red Webster’s with the crinkly pages from my nightstand. We’ve preserved the practice through the dozen or so books we’ve read since.
Last night, while cooking some chicken on the grill (for Emma’s legendary oven-baked mac n’ cheese, which, when doused with Red Hot, I consider a religious experience), I pulled an old New Yorker from a laundry basket filled to overflowing with “to be thrown away” material that Karry is forcing me to deal with. I inherited from my mother a bad habit of keeping, you know, everything. I stumbled upon a really neat review (which you owe it to yourself to read) of a book on how to form / break habits. In the article, they cite an old research study that evaluated will power in children by placing a marshmallow in front of a child and timing how long it took before she/he would reach for it. In one variation of the experiment, the marshmallow would be visible in front of the child; in another, the marshmallow would be placed in front of the child, but covered so it could not be seen. The study determined that ‘hiding the marshmallow’ had an impact on how long it took the child to cave to temptation. The article (and the book) posited that good and bad habits have more to do with environment than will power. Actually, the key to habit forming/breaking is to remove will power from the equation as much as possible.
So, this morning, inspired by that, I found myself reading at the dining room table. Intentionally, I left my phone downstairs, to ‘hide the marshmallow’ – i.e. keep me from its distraction. While easy to Google a definition, I too often end up checking ESPN, or social media, or … or… or …..
I quickly found myself piling up a bunch of words whose meaning I didn’t know or couldn’t remember (protean, cozen, impresa, etc.).
Rather than retrieving my phone from downstairs, I kept the marshmallow hidden.
Instead, I went to my bedroom, and plucked the old red Webster’s from my night stand, looked up each word and wrote their definitions in the back of my journal.
And thought of Aunt Doris.
I never took the opportunity to share with her how grateful I am that she sent me the worst Christmas present my 17-year-old self could have imagined. In that moment I wanted to write her a letter … maybe sitting at my kitchen table, a ceremonial cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, filling pages of one of those big yellow notebooks.
Aunt Doris passed last December from a version of the same dementia that took my Mom’s life in 2015. Aunt Janet passed away a year ago from a variation of the same.
So, this morning, I did the next best thing I could think of — I wrote a long note to my cousin Jenny, just like our mothers used to do (the bones of which you are now reading). She wrote back immediately to tell me that no one made her mother laugh as hard as my mom. And that my note made her cry.
In retrospect … I think my childhood perceptions of my Aunt Doris were pretty spot on. She was definitely a super smart lady. She instinctively knew what it took the author and researchers cited in the New Yorker piece years and experiments to discover.
Good habits have much more to do with environment than will power.
For 32 years (and counting), that old red Webster’s has never left my bed side or bookshelf. For 32 years (and counting) I’ve thought of Aunt Doris (and Dr. Bower) every time I’ve cracked open its crinkly pages.
It has literally opened up worlds to me.
A dictionary was The Last Thing I ever wanted for Christmas.
But it’s made every new word I’ve ever met feel like a gift.