A Girl, A Grandfather, and Gawain — Confessions of an Early Wordsnob

© July 2014 Mary Crockford

My lifelong fascination with language and literature did not begin among the towering bookcases and sound-amplifying wood floors of the old Burlingame Public Library, though I spent countless afternoons there as a girl with my avid reader grandparents. Nor did it begin with watching schlocky adaptations of Dracula, Frankenstein and other British Gothic masterpieces on late-night horror TV with my father, though I (and my years battling an anxiety disorder) can attest to their influence as well. Where it began was on the floor of my grandparents’ living room on summer mornings in grade school, with the comics section of the San Francisco Chronicle split between my sister and myself. Being nearly 4 years younger, she happily chose “Peanuts” and “Family Circle,” while I reached for the latest installment of Hal Foster’s weekly serial, “Prince Valiant.” The escapades of Gawain and the other Knights of the Round Table — written with a sense of adventure and humor that were never lost on me — were my first taste of Medieval literature, Arthurian legend and the chivalric code. Only in the last several years, since finally beginning my studies in English Literature at university, did I recognize the role those “comics” played in igniting, all those years ago, my present love affair with classic literature. What took me longer to realize was the role it played in also igniting my love of the English language. To be more precise, it awakened my love for the beautiful, purposeful, passionately crafted language intrinsic to classic literature. It’s thus no surprise that since I was a very young girl I have enjoyed a rich and expansive vocabulary, something not everyone who’s known or met me has necessarily appreciated. Most grownups viewed my facility with language as quaint, sometimes impressive, sometimes inconveniently mouthy. As an adult participating in critique groups and writing seminars myself, I have on occasion been accused of purposely looking for big words to show off, or charged by a family member (or former spouse) with talking down to them because I used those words a little too well. I’ve never understood any of these accusations, and have in fact been confused and hurt by them, because that has never been my purpose in exercising my vocabulary, unconsciously or consciously. The simple fact is, I love words. I don’t just love them, I need and crave and adore them! Words are powerful tools, that convey important information and get things done. The best of them massage the inside of my head as they roll like brightly colored, gloriously patterned, pleasantly clacking marbles through the itchy twists and turns of my gray matter, then slide toward and off my tongue into just the right position and purpose. Words, in a word, make me happy. Big ones, small ones, archaic ones, scientific ones, clever and even challenging ones – they all fit in my universe somewhere, perfectly, and I won’t give them up! And it’s not because I’m stubborn or rebellious that I refuse to give them up, dumb them down, or replace them with more “fitting” alternatives that don’t offend someone else’s contentment with the commonplace. I refuse to give them up because I can’t. Like the feisty redhead with old money, a Southern twang and a perky swing in her backyard, my mind owns what it owns, finds unspeakable joy in possessing it, and frankly couldn’t stop unpacking what’s in its arsenal even if it wanted to.
So from the minute I started reading Chapter 2 of Mary M. Clark’s “Structure of English for Readers, Writers and Teachers,” I grew frustrated and a shocking emotion struck me: Loneliness. Seeing a question like “Where do our words come from?” is an instant reminder that I live in a time and culture in which it seems few want to explore that question. I immediately envision myself standing alone in a vast field, arms outstretched to receive and give something of great rarity and beauty, and there’s no one there who wants to share it. At first anyway. Then slowly, as I close my eyes and breathe and let a few moments pass, a few souls bob into view like plump, wispy bubbles and settle nearby. I haven’t met them, but they’re there, from different places and times and traditions, and somehow we do know each other. Like the sense of communion I once experienced with women across the span of time, that eased my apprehension the first time I was about to give birth, these figures tell me I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, at least in this, and I won’t be. It’s okay with them that I don’t have the words to convey the comfort our literary-linguistic communion brings – they feel that, too.
Tonight, I don’t want to look for the concrete answer to the question of where words come from, like what people group disseminated what concept to whom over thousands of miles and thousands of years, or who first carved them on sea shells, painted them on stone or etched them in plates of gold. It doesn’t matter tonight who transcribed the first hymns of praise or spoke the earliest tribal myths. As much as that generally intrigues me, all I want tonight is to rest in the knowledge that I am not alone in loving words, and finding my deepest contentment in the universe of their company. I am content to be thankful for the way they connect me to the innumerable, brilliant hosts who have used them to convey the depths of human reason, passion, sorrow, love, joy, and longing for…well, forever. I am content to drift to sleep remembering the crinkling, inky pages of the newspaper in my young hands, in that Burlingame living room illuminated by the sunlight streaming in the leaded-glass window over my grandfather’s chair. In my mind’s ageless eye, I once again pass my fingertips through each shaft of that morning sunlight as it conveys upward the dust fairies and wisps of pipe smoke that tell my eyes, my nose, and my skin that my Poppy is right next to me, reading what is probably his thousandth hardback novel from the Burlingame Public Library. I want to simply love and miss him tonight, and thank him – and Hal Foster – for introducing me to something that all the insecurity, fatigue, and worries of life can not take away even these 40 years later. They brought me the literature and language that are as necessary to my soul as air is to my lungs…for which the only words that matter now are, thank you.

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