Iowa Summer Writing Festival – Personal Essay

Words punctuated my childhood. My parents overvalued learning to speak clearly, spell correctly, and write coherently. Until lately, this all-in-the-head intellectual approach to words permeated my life.

Long before computers, my teacher mother was my spelling and grammar checker both at home and in my eighth-grade classroom. Errors in diction, spelling, or grammar incited instant corrective echoes. I still do not use the words lay and lie without reference to my college Harper Handbook—for fear I’ll hear my mother’s voice ricochet from wall-to-wall in my memory.

Words also fascinated my preacher dad. Conversations with him equaled an intellectual analysis of minutiae. For three years, he wrote a weekly column, Word a Week, for a church publication. That magazine honored him recently for his prophetic thinking 50 years ago about the word robot.

In grade school I thrived on lists of spelling words. Vowel and consonant sounds hummed across my weekly tests in Palmer penmanship. As a seventh grader, I represented my small Indiana school at a Spelling Bee in the big city of Chicago. I went down on the word cemetery—three e’s, not a final a—a fitting word upon which to fall. And I remember, as if it were my first hour class today, my teacher sister attempting to teach my Elvis-era guy friends—imagine oiled pompadours, black leather jackets, and ’57 Chevy’s with duals—and the rest of my class to appreciate American Literature. She introduced us to new intriguing uses of words: simile, metaphor, assonance, alliteration, and, best of all, onomatopoeia—words that sound like the idea they denote, as in hum, buzz, and zigzag.

Later in my college teaching years, my interest in words penciled my nursing students’ written work. They anguished whether I taught nursing or whether I taught English in a lab coat. Instinctively, I circled misuses of it’s and its, misspellings—including alot, and mismatches between subject and verb tenses. Completing the spelling and grammar check freed my mind to go back and evaluate the paper for content. I took the collegiate notion of Writing Across the Curriculum seriously. I believed that writing should be integrated into all disciplines and not taught solely in the English major. No wonder—my intellectual radio featured continuous programming of grammar rock and roll.

More recently in retirement, I’ve plunged into writing courses that have fired my thesaurus and dictionary neurons once again. Coursework involves reading accomplished writers, analyzing writing approaches, and discovering fresh wording for everyday experiences. In one class we became aware, suddenly, that much of our writing and conversation consisted of clichés—nothing fresh about it. At the end of this class, the person sitting next to me said, “Hey there, kiddo. Time to hit the road. No sense hanging around. See ya next week—same time, same station. Have a good one!”

Now my all-in-the-head intellectual experience with words abruptly has become an in-the-heart emotional experience. In a temporary summer job, I am assessing older persons at home before their move into a senior continuing care community. One of the questions addresses word finding—the ability to retrieve words from one’s memory. During the assessment interview, faltering answers sometimes follow my fluent questions:

“What is the date today?” “January…January, 1982. Am I right?”
“What is the name of the current president?” “Lincoln…isn’t it?”
“What did you have for lunch today?” “Did we eat yet? Well, did we?”
“What is your full name?” “What is my name, do you know? Help me…come on, help me!”
“What is the name of the street where you live?” “Well, if that’s not the darndest thing. I can’t remember. We’ve lived here our whole lives.”

During these memory assessments, my clients’ foreheads crease into furrows of frustration. Their fingers tap their laps. Spouses patiently prod their loved ones to respond appropriately. Adult children silently mouth answers as mom or dad fights for the word.

I am torn as I experience my clients’ anxiety. I am moved by their families’ compassion. I pray I will be able to emulate the courage I am witnessing if finding words becomes more in my life than simply referring to Harper, Roget, or Webster.

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