My Mother’s Word Lists
I believe in word lists. My mother’s word lists, to be specific. Each week as I was growing up, my mother wrote five, maybe six words on a three by five index card and displayed it where my brothers and sisters could see it several times a day. The card could not be removed until the next week and only she could do that. It had to be in the same spot for the entire week. Usually, it was on the windowsill above the sink where we could study the words as we were washing dishes or sweaters or cleaning vegetables. My mother wrote the meanings next to each word and expected us to memorize both the spelling and the meaning so that we could use the words in our daily conversation. There were words like “oblique”, “precipitous”, and “ubiquitous”. Not your ordinary words and certainly not the ones we generally used with each other on a daily basis. We were young then, six, twelve, seventeen; how many children at those ages would use words like “technocratic” when talking with each other? Not many but my mother insisted on a new card every week.
My mother believed in the power of words. She was convinced that the knowledge through words led to personal freedom. She would tell us, all seven of us, the first one born eleven years before the seventh one, that her mother had only a third grade education in Ireland and it was her rich vocabulary of words which helped her once she reached America. My mother would tell us that if you knew the big ones, the small ones would be easy. She told us that understanding words could set you free – you could read all sorts of books, the big ones, the old ones, the little fable ones, the knowledge ones, the numbers ones – and the world would not close its’ doors on you. You could use words to persuade, tell funny stories or big dreams, send love notes, or you could end up in the world of poets and playwrights. Your words would be your legacy.
Sometimes her lists had a theme, a musical one with words like “allegro”, “vivante”, “staccato”; they were the easy ones since we knew how to read music. Or, a mathematical list, “tangential”, “integral”, “derivative”. She gave us all the meanings, not only the direct ones but also the ones you didn’t think about; like “tangential”, the slope of a line but outside the subject as well. She would say, “see, words are tricky and clever, people will use them in so many ways.”
I believe in my mother’s belief in the authority and power of words. I don’t know if her goal was to list every word in the dictionary on those cards or if she was selective in her word choices. I think the latter and even after we left home, I would remember visiting her and seeing new lists on the window-sill. “You can never have too many words, you never know when they will come in handy”, she would tell me, almost in defense of her lists. For close to thirty-five years, my mother would write down words, memorize them, and then talk to us using those newly learned words.
For my mother, words gave her choices, gave her children choices – allowed her entry into other worlds. She was convinced that words opened her mind, ours as well, and made us all learn the unexpected, the new, the tangential stuff.