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Words Fail Me: Showing the Inexpressible

February 18, 2012

Words Fail Me: Showing the inexpressible

Just before Grandmother Aten died, my parents moved east. I have no memory of my grandmother but have been told she sewed exquisite gowns by hand for my mother when Mom was in college. I know my grandmother left vases of wild flowers in Mother’s room when she came home from school on vacations. And I know that without time to really clean my grandmother would have given the room “a lick and a promise.”

Each generation of this family moves farther from the farm and it shows in our speech. Although I may say, “There aren’t enough vegetables on that plate to shake a stick at,” I use this type of expression less than my mother and my children, far less than I. The children don’t search for needles in haystacks or get clean as a whistle. These are hand-me-down expressions that speak of our history, not our current experience, and they cannot be replaced in kind.

Grandpa Aten came to visit us a few times after Grandmother died. He’d take the train from Chicago to Baltimore and we would meet him at the B&O Station. With little familiarity to bind us, I was self-conscious as I greeted the tall, silent farmer in the straw hat—his pale blue summer shirt so thin that I could see the scoop of this undershirt through it.

I’d shyly approach and he’d raise his fists in a mock boxing stance as if to playfully engage me in an exchange for which he had no words. Maybe I was supposed to shadowbox with the kind old man who loved my mother and therefore me, but I would smile and move out of range, not knowing what was expected.

Perhaps because words were difficult, Grandpa Aten did more than he said in the name of love. He spent most of his visits doing thoughtful jobs for my mother who was now raising three daughters alone. He’d repair the pasture fence, or spend days at treacherous heights trimming tree branches so she could see the river from the house. He worked, as he loved, in silence, unlike the family who now remembers him and unlike my daughter Emily who never knew him.

“I love you more than you love me,” Emily challenges me with authority. She searches her second grade experience for the greatest comparison she can offer as proof. “I love you as much as every star that shines, ever will shine, in this galaxy and all the other galaxies in the universe. Or any other universe. Forever,” she concludes triumphantly.

“Now,” Emily says in a business-like manner. “How much do you love me?”

She waits expectantly.

I don’t sew exquisite ball gowns late into the night. I don’t know how.  In place of greater talents, it seems words are all I have. I give detailed explanations when a “yes” or “no” would do; deliver speeches to children too sleepy to listen. My grandparents might have reminded me too many words fall like seed on fallow ground but still, I search their legacy (till the sun doesn’t shine? till the rivers run dry?) and find no words to measure the longevity of my love.

Emily waits for me to quantify my affection. But sometimes words fail me. And sometimes, love speaks for itself.

Just to engage the muse and practice showing, not telling in your work, write about a time words failed you or about a character who cannot communicate his feelings or intent. How can you convey the struggle? How can you show what was felt? Clues; have your character performing a physical task—baking a cake that won’t get done, trying to open a jar with a stubborn lid, unable to read a map.



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