Monday, November 28, 2011

Three Words I Learned (and for real, this time)

November 28, 2011             Sinclair Terrace, South Orange NJ               8:34 am

(Here, is the post I'd prepared for yesterday.  John helped me get it from one place to another in the wonderful cyberworld that seems, daily, to be leaving me in its wake.  Boo-hoo) 

Thinking about things, as usual.

I think I’ll call this ‘Three Words I Learned’.

It's probably obvious, by now, that I love words – the juicier, the more arcane or difficult to pronounce, the better.  Having attended relatively good schools, in an era when learning was decidedly more vigorously supported, I found many chances to add to my vocabulary.  Some opportunities, of course, came with a threat, or the inducement of a (possibly) good grade.  Others arose simply from my love of reading.  In any case, by the time I was in high school, verbal gems like vermilion, synapse, gyrate, opalescence, probity, and anathema cavorted in my little personal herd of what I felt was a species of living terminology.  

But, of all the perhaps thousands of words I’ve shepherded through the nooks and crannies of my brain, there are three particular, and personally important words, each of which I recall learning at a particular time and place.

The first, sadly, is the Word which I can’t actually use in polite discourse.  It’s that abrupt Anglo-Saxon fricative, indicative of efforts furthering the future of the species, but also used as a curse, and which was once completely verboten in public (though I must admit that one of my more startling experiences was hearing this term, in a loud female voice, practically shouted out, in a rush-hour elevator in the Exxon Building in 1984).  My own introduction to this potent Word happened, however, much earlier, in my childhood. 

I was 6 and it was the summer between first and second grades.  We had moved again, and I would be attending the George Washington School, down the alley and around the corner from the squat, side-by-side duplex we now called home, in Belleville IL.  New to yet another neighborhood, I had met a boy named Eddie.  Eddie was perhaps two or three years older than me, and was, I later realized, unusually precocious in matters carnal – at least in terms of the type of banal carnality which even the most inventive of nine-year olds could ferret out, in the flat, mid-summer heat of southern Illinois in the mid-1950’s. 

In any case, over that summer between first and second grades, Eddie took me under his wing, and after a few days of desultory catch and tag and hide-and-seek, he elected to share with me the hidden treasures he’d unearthed, the select glimpses he had discovered, into the distinctly forbidden world of real grown up men. 

Usually, we would start in the early afternoon, when everyone would be having lunch, and away from their desks, and off their guard.  We would sneak down a couple of streets, find the right alleyway, and duck behind the local electrician’s shop.   Because of the warm weather, the back door would be open, and if the coast was clear, we could get a glimpse of his calendar, hung by a nail up above his dark workbench.  There, embellishing one month or another, and portrayed sitting on a large stone in a shady opening in the woods, sat a luminously naked, dark-haired adult lady, who, as I remember, seemed almost to look back at us, with no concern either for her lack of clothing, or the fact that someone was probably looking right at her.  

At the first stirrings from the front of the shop, we dashed through some bushes, into the alley, and ran as fast as we could.

Another locale of interest to Eddie was the local tavern, where, in the summer time, a graveled back yard was set with picnic tables.  From a sliding window at the back of the bar, you could buy a cold, frosted mug of root beer.  It cost a nickel.   Of course Eddie appreciated the root beer, but having placed his order, and while the bartender was digging another mug out of the cooler, Eddie would squirm up as close as he could get to the window, and then duck his head down just a bit, so he could see the set of large, colorful posters, hanging on walls above the bar.   Then Eddie tugged at my arm, to get my head at the right angle, making sure that I could see too -- a painting of a nearly-naked woman, sitting in a wooden wash tub, her shapely legs tucked up under her, and her great buoyant breasts decorated out at their ends with two tiny dabs of soap suds.  Or a big, blonde young lady, with her hair in braids, trying to climb over a fence, and getting her blouse pulled open by some wire, in a revealing way that didn't seem to dismay her at all. 

All these glimpses were of course brief, even when, at the little window, Eddie got me to order my root beer separately, so the bartender had to make two trips to the cooler.  Afterwards, I was perfectly content, sitting under the yellow lights over the white-graveled yard, drinking my root beer with a straw.  I did find the secrecy thrilling; these slightly dangerous peeps into the world of grown men, and Eddie’s interest in them, and his willingness to share them with me, was very exciting.  As for the undressed women, however, for me they seemed a remote curiosity. 

The Word, however, was another matter. 

One day late in same summer, as we were lazing under one of the arched lattice-work rose trellises in Eddie’s back yard, Eddie told me he was going to share something really important with me.  He told me that there was a certain Word, that had a terrible power, was only used by grownups, and meant awful, improbable and inspiring things. 

As Eddie was explaining everything the Word signified -- so far as he understood it -- I couldn’t really get a clear grasp of what he meant.  But then he said it.  He may even have spelled it.  As a sound, though, it was less impressive that I had expected, given everything Eddie said it meant.  He made me say it.  It wasn’t particularly lovely, though there was a nice feeling of bite at the end.  I blithely said it over and over again, to get used to it.  And then there we lay, on the cool grass, with the smell of roses in the air, taking turns in making up a long serial adventure story – a long, sprawling story full of pirates and horses and naked women, great sailing ships and and wild Indians,  chests of treasure and more naked women -- all the while interlacing our shared fantasy with as many utterances of that brisk chewy Word as we could possibly manage.

Later that same day, we went swimming in his family’s big wading pool.  Afterwards, in the garage, standing by his dad’s station wagon, we wriggled out of our wet little bathing suits, and I was overcome with curiosity, wanting to see if Eddie, naked, looked anything like me.  He impatiently turned away from my curious glance, and quickly finished dressing.  I thought I had somehow done something even worse than everything the Word  ( which, only an hour or so earlier, we’d bandied back and forth so extravagantly) was supposed to mean. 

Shortly after that, before the end of August, Eddie and his family moved away.

(Expletive deleted)

My second special word entered the collection the next school year.  I was in second grade now, and we had a wonderful young teacher, Miss Winkler.  Although I don’t have a clear memory of her in general, I recall her being slender and energized, generous and attentive.  (Nothing at all, it now occurs to me, like the pneumatic fantasies I’d been sneaking peeks at all summer)  At the time, Life Magazine was featuring a serialized pictorial exploration of ocean life -- the odd spindly creatures teeming under wooden pilings where ships would be tied; the slick metallic tuna and hungry-looking barracuda; the bizarre, but delicately transparent monstrosities that glowed their lives out in the deepest of waters.  Each time a new set of illustrations was issued, Miss Winkler would bring them into class.  She taped these detailed artist’s illustrations to the blackboard at the front of the room, handed out paper and crayons, and we each chose some area of the picture, and made our own interpretation.  I remember the clusters of violet-blue mussel shells, draped with olive green sea weed, clinging to weathered pilings.  Or the flat, lurid, dangerous-looking hatchet fish, pale and fragile as glass, floating in the darkest darkness.  I worked diligently on my drawings, wondering – like the land-locked Illinois boy I was – what it might be like, actually seeing the ocean, and all these wondrous creatures. 

One of my drawings piqued Miss Winkler’s particular interest – I had been layering color over color, orange over yellow, and then adding the brightest red I could make, to capture both the color edging the shell of a blue crab, and also the gleaming cerise of the lipstick Miss Winkler always wore.  ‘Oh my,’ she said with obvious appreciation, pointing to my drawing, ‘that’s very vivid.’  I felt very warm and successful, as she gave me a little private vocabulary lesson, and then moved on to the next student. 

Vivid.  I think I was the only one in the class who got that word.   Vivid.  An attentive look, a little word, a caring gesture.  Miss Winkler had given me an incorruptible gift.   

The last word is orphanage, and in a sense, no one taught me this one.  But I learned it nonetheless. 

My parents were fighting, more and more.  My father would come home, and sit on the sofa in the living room, pleading with my mother about ‘the divorce’.  From my chair across the room, where I would draw horses and swans, I watched the secret smile on my mother’s face, and I knew that she had already made up her mind.

One afternoon, during one of his visits (I never did know where he was sleeping then), my father took me into our bathroom, for privacy.  He leaned down so his face was level with mine, and declared, ‘No matter what, you will never live in an orphanage.’  Impressed by his obvious urgency, as well as the fact that he was actually talking to me, I nodded, as though I understood. 

I mean, I knew what an orphan was – it was someone without any parents.  And even though they didn’t get along, I did still have a mother and a father.  In a way, my father might as well have told me, in that serious tone of his, I was never going to live in an aviary, or an aquarium.  But this clearly wasn’t a moment for a chat.

The arguments escalated.  Lamps were thrown.  Glass was broken.  I lay in my bunk bed, praying to Jesus to fix my family.  Weeks after that praying, my three brothers and I had been piled into my father’s black Buick, with the odd breathing holes on the side, and as the car left the driveway, we watched my mother and sister, in matching pink bathrobes, waving to us from the front door. 

We crossed Illinois, Indiana, Ohio.  My father drove in the dark.  I sat in the front seat.  I watched, holding my breath as, trying to pass a slow truck on a night of driving rain, my father nearly ran  head-on into another truck barreling toward us in the oncoming lane.  Finally, we were in Pennsylvania, and at my Aunt Marie’s house, where she and her family were getting ready for the Thanksgiving of 1955. 

My brothers and I went to a new school.  It was my second fourth grade.  To me, the classroom seemed to have no lights in it.  At Aunt Marie's house, we all got the flu – my brothers and me, and my three cousins too.  There were mattresses laid out on the kitchen floor.  By the time we were all well, it was nearly Christmas.  Aunt Marie’s tree was in the big room with her piano.  Even with all the strung lights and tinsel, it seemed dark there too.  

Before school started again, my father gathered my brothers and me into the black car, but for a shorter drive this time.   Through the open, snowy countryside, seeming always to get closer and closer to a large dark building lurking in the near distance, on top of a low hill.  We turned into a long curved driveway edged by dense, thorny hedges with red berries.  Vivid berries.  We pulled to a stop.  

There was no time for questions or explanations.  We piled out of the car.  My father had to leave, he said; my brothers and I were led into the great dark building, and up some stairs, where we were shown where we would sleep.  We saw where we would eat.  Where we would store our coats and galoshes.  Where, in the narrow store room, lit by a single bulb overhead, we would each put our own small stack of folded clothes. 

So we stayed there that night, and we kept on staying there, for many nights after that.  We went to a school, right down the hill, where other kids seemed to know there was something wrong with all of us.  With all the other children staying in the dark house, we did homework in a large, echoingly empty gymnasium. And while we were in that dark house, we had rules to obey and many jobs to do.

One week, I was assigned to fetch the soiled laundry – dirty bed sheets and pillow cases, diapers and towels – from the attic-level nursery (where the pre-school children stayed), to carry it all the way through the great house, and finally to bring it downstairs to the steamy basement washing room.  I pushed open the nursery door, my arms filled with bundled white cloth.  I had to be careful making my way down the narrow back stairs. 

As I reached the main stairway, it was easier to see where I was going.  I turned the corner, onto the landing at the top of the central, doublewide staircase.  Behind me was a large stained-glass window.  And above my head, on a half-wall facing the stained glass, was a bronze plaque I’d never seen before.  It was impressive – larger even than the bundle of laundry in my arms.  The bottom part was filled with the names of people who must have been important at one time or another.  But I was fixed on the large letters across the top, and I read them over and over to myself, trying to make them mean something different.  But the raised metal letters were sturdy,  unflinching, and unambiguous.  ‘The United Presbyterian Children’s Orphanage’, it said.

Then, I learned the word, and some other things too -- but in a new way, an inward way, the way the little boy in The Snow Queen learned to love that cold woman in white, because a sliver of her iciness had pierced his heart.  I’ve always felt, looking back to the boy standing frozen on the stairs, with dirty laundry in his arms, that that one hard bronze word deftly found its way into  him -- burrowing in, hunting out, and freezing the place where a bit of hope and childish denial still were cowering.     


© 2011  Walter Zimmerman


  1. It is important to note the end of the Snow Queen story. It was love that melted the splinter of ice in Kay's heart; and then it was his own tears, as he owned his sorrow, that washed the splinter out of his eye. Only then was he able to put together the icy bits of his life and form the word "eternity"--hope--for himself. He and Gerda returned to their city, which was the same, but they themselves were now grown, bigger, no longer subject to the trauma that had overtaken them as children.

  2. I'm speechless. This was beautifully written. I feel like I want to just scoop that little boy up and give him the biggest hug I can!