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The Slippery Slope of Meaning
by Suzanne R. Thurman

My grandmother had a strong faith in the value of words. What you said, or didn't say, signified who you were and placed you in the world. Her passion for language is not surprising since words were about all she had. She was born poor, and she died poor. If you judged her only by her background and the amount of money she earned in her lifetime, you would have to conclude that she belonged to the ranks of the working class. But that was not a place she cared to be and her aspirations, her outlook on life, were pure middle class. She was a smart woman, my grandmother, well read and thoughtful, even though she never went past the eighth grade. And she knew what she wanted. Despite, or perhaps because of, her abbreviated education, she used words like bricks to build an inviolable wall between the world she chose to inhabit and the world that never stopped threatening to pull her in.

Because words were her primary claim against the chaos of poverty, she treated them as if they were a sacred trust. Being poor was never an excuse for bad hygiene, violence, or uncouth behavior, and certainly not for being vulgar or using incorrect grammar. The last thing you wanted was to be mistaken for one of the hillbillies who lived in the ratty house on the corner. Thus certain words were forbidden, taboo. You did not swear or take the Lord's name in vain. You did not say he don't, I done, or we ain't. You did not tell someone to shut up or call them names like stupid or idiot, no matter how angry you were. You did not say to a person, I hate you. And you never lowered yourself by using slang terms such as butt or fart. If you had to talk about certain bodily functions and their accompanying body parts, a questionable proposition in itself, then you should at least do so in a classy way.

I took my grandmother's message to heart. I felt the weight of her convictions as she transferred to me the responsibility of maintaining our family's place in society. And so I had no choice. I enlisted in her cause as a verbal warrior whose solemn duty was to make the world more mannerly and civil, one word at a time.

* * *

Before I started kindergarten, while we were still renting our house on Lima Avenue, I used to play with a girl named Liz. She lived across the street, an obstacle which seemed like a major divide to two preschoolers. On those occasions when Liz did venture over, we always found some activity to keep us occupied. Sometimes she'd bring her tricycle and we'd ride up and the down the sidewalk that connected the back door of our house with the front door of our landlady's bungalow. Or we'd get into the rhubarb that grew in the backyard and suck the juice out of the stalks until our stomachs ached. Or we'd run along the neighbors' fence, launching their dog into a barking frenzy as he chased us back and forth. But without fail, at some point during our time together Liz would stop what we were doing and announce, "I have to pee." Then she would take off and return a few minutes later, refreshed and ready to play again.

I was stumped by this strange ritual. I had no idea what she was talking about. Her words were gibberish. So I imagined the only explanation I could, Liz running home each afternoon to eat one emerald pea off a white china plate.

* * *

Because of my grandmother I came to have a firm belief in the veracity of words. Language was a precise art. A word meant what it said, no more, no less.

I can see this belief forming in my son, who is not quite two years old, as he wends his way through the murky territory of "language acquisition." In the last few months he has started to understand that words have definite meanings, especially where his own desires are concerned. To the question Would you like some juice? his initial response was a resounding No, please! as he anxiously waited for his juice box. Now, not only is he learning to sort out the difference between no, thank you and yes, please, but he is also learning that his requests are more willingly granted when he is polite.

He is also learning that words refer to particular objects. One of his favorite words and foods is apple. Apple sightings, in pictures or in real life, are usually accompanied by a shiver of excitement and the lyrical cry of apple, bapple. He recently added to his knowledge on this subject when he reached for the red glass balls hanging on the Christmas tree and said apple in a questioning sort of way. I explained that they were ornaments, not apples, despite their similar appearance, and they were not good to eat. After that, he would point to the shiny temptations hanging within his tiptoed reach and say no apple. He never did put one in his mouth.

I am fascinated by this process that allows my son to communicate with other people, yet I wonder sometimes if learning to name his world isn't a sort of regression. I wonder if he loses something when he moves from the idea that words can refer to multiple objects simply because those objects resemble each other, to the notion that one word stands for one referent. Granted, this sense of linguistic tidiness orders my son's universe, and the very concreteness of that certainty may be necessary to anchor his toddler world, which is capable of spinning out of orbit at any given moment. Still, watching him I realize that it takes us years to relearn what we knew as babies, that words can be fluid; they don't always mean what we think they mean

* * *

When I was in the eighth grade, several of us girls from Mr. Smith's earth science class volunteered to decorate a bulletin board in our classroom. The theme was weather, to match the unit we were studying at the time. During a brainstorming session after school, we decided to do something with rain and settled on the idea of drawing a mother duck dressing her child in a raincoat and boots before he went outside. Cute, in a junior high sort of way.

Being a witty teenager, I suggested that the duckling say, "But Mommy, I don't want to wear my rubbers!"

The other girls giggled. "The duck can't say that," they told me.

"Why not?" I asked. Didn't they get the joke?

"We can't use the word rubbers," they insisted.

"Why not?" It was a perfectly good word. I'd read hundreds of children's books, and the kids in them always wore rubbers on their feet when it rained. They also wore wraps and occasionally carried bumbershoots. The point was to stay dry. It was the sensible thing to do.

The girls gave each other the "look" and giggled some more. I was confused and slightly annoyed. I felt like an outsider, the only one who didn't know the secret password into adolescence. I don't remember what the duckling said, but I know he didn't say rubbers. It was a long time before I understood why.

* * *

When I was a graduate student studying other people's history, I discovered a work of literary genius that shed some light on my own. I discovered Lewis Carroll and the adventures of Alice. This is not to say that I had previously been unaware of her famous exploits. I had known about Alice ever since elementary school when my friend Julia and I sat, enthralled, in the new theater complex at the mall and watched the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland play on the big screen. What I didn't know at the time, despite my voracious appetite for reading, was that the movie was based on real literature. I'm not sure when I realized that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were actually sophisticated chapter books, but one day, sick of taking notes from the stacks of history monographs that littered my apartment, I decided to give my brain a rest and do something I rarely did in grad school, read for pleasure.

And it was a pleasure. I was enchanted by Alice's topsy-turvy universe, a place devised by someone who must have loved words as much as I did. How else could he think up such fantastic dialogue for creatures like the Duchess, the White Queen, the Mock Turtle, and my favorite, Humpty Dumpty? I had no idea an egg could be so smart. He understood something that had first baffled, then angered, me-the elusive nature of words. In my grandmother's world, lying was not an option, and she didn't prepare me for the fact that not everybody viewed words in the same way that we did. Some people were not as selective in their use of language. Some people flat out lied. For years I walked around with a slight sense of betrayal hovering over me, wondering how people could string together a series of words, could conjure up a picture that simply didn't exist, and swear up and down that it did. And then I discovered Humpty Dumpty, a pompous creature who taunted poor Alice with nonsense because she clung to the belief that words had to make sense in some universal sort of way. Humpty Dumpty quickly set her straight. Words had no inherent meaning; they meant only what he wanted them to mean.

Humpty Dumpty prized his linguistic power over others. He tossed off words with abandon, and from his lofty perch atop his verbal wall he commanded a bird's eye view of the world. He reminded me of myself. True, our walls looked different because we built them with different material. My words were fixed entities. His were free floating. But underneath it all, Humpty Dumpty and I were a lot alike. In the end, we both wanted to be master.

* * *

We took our vacations in August, right before the semester started. I went to Door County, Wisconsin, with one of my old college roommates. He went to Florida to visit his best friend. We both needed a break before we started another round of academic hustling in our pursuit of knowledge and the Ph.D. that went with it.

We'd been dating three years and were practically inseparable. On summer evenings we walked around the town square, watching the nighthawks swoop over the courthouse dome. He liked movies, and most weekends we went to some foreign film at Bear's Place. We cooked our meals together. Simple stuff mainly, bagels and soup. But sometimes he made me a dish he'd concocted all on his own-rice topped with a fried egg, cheese, and spaghetti sauce. And he'd make turnovers from pie dough and apple butter. We watched Indiana win the NCAA championship on a cold March night, then walked down to Kirkwood Avenue and over to the mermaid fountain to join the crowds in celebration. Both of us were avid readers, and he surprised me every now and then with a book, usually something off beat, from one of the used bookstores in town. He sent me homemade cards with romantic verses. We talked, all the time, about everything. And we laughed. I was crazy in love. I thought he was my soul mate. I thought all the cliches you can imagine.

When I got back from Wisconsin, the first thing I did was call him. He was supposed to be home, but he wasn't. I called all afternoon. I called into the early evening. No answer. His mother called me. She'd been trying to get a hold of him, too. We talked for a long time, worried that something had happened.

Late that evening he knocked on my apartment door. He looked exhausted. He'd been driving all day. But it was more than that, I could tell.

"What's wrong?" I asked.


I gave him his souvenir, a mug that said "Kiss Me I'm Danish." His mother was a Hanson before she married.

"Thanks," he said. But his eyes were empty.

"What's wrong?" I asked.


We talked some more. I don't remember what about. Then he headed for the door. "I'll see you tomorrow," he told me.

The words sounded hollow.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

His face sagged. Then everything came unhinged. He'd been thinking about us. That's why he was so late getting back into town. He'd stayed longer than he'd planned at his friend's, sorting things out.

"I don't think I love you anymore," he said.

My body hung on a thread of disbelief.

"I'm not sure I ever did."

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