“I will simply take the position that the spoken word, like the written word, amounts to a nonsensical arrangement of sounds or letters without a consensus that assigns “meaning.” And building from the meanings of what we hear, we order reality. Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.”

-Gloria Naylor, in “The Meanings of a Word”

I first learned the power of a single word when I was in kindergarten. There was a boy, we’ll call him B., whom I found funny and kindhearted, the kind of boy many other boys and girls liked to pick on. We often would end up near each other in our seating arrangements, and once he told me I looked cute with my ponytail. I returned the compliment by saying he looked cute in his glasses. It wasn’t young love, just kindness.

In my elementary school years, at least up until 2nd grade, I was a champion for the lesser known, the bullied, the proletariat in grade school in a small town in Nebraska. Before I allow myself to soak in the warm blush of the music from my own horn, I should preface the rest of my story with the fact that I was also one of the largest children in my class. My twin sister and I were always tall for our age, and though we averaged out in the end, for most of elementary and middle school, we helped raise the standard height for our grade. It was nice to be big. It was helpful in many situations, including the following.

Above-average-height-kindergarten-Rachel, wearing plaid stirrup stretch pants and probably a purple turtleneck, was just meandering about one recess, when cute-glasses B. was spotted across the playground, struggling to get his baseball cap from another student. A much taller second grader had B.’s hat and was gesturing that she was going to throw it over a fence where the school vehicles were kept. I’d seen B. hanging around her before, so apparently they knew each other; however, I didn’t like to see people get their things taken away. Many show-and-tell items (often the items students treasured more than most) became the lofted target for drawn-out games of Monkey-in-the-Middle. One of my favorite pastimes at recess was to end those games by snatching the toy out of the air and handing it back to the rightful owner (It angered many of my classmates, and sometimes even the “monkey” seemed a bit disappointed. Maybe the attention was better than the toy they’d lost. It’s best to believe that NO ONE took my things, but I also didn’t bring my most prized possessions.). Being a fairly quiet and reserved child, I wasn’t often seen as a threat.  Stealthily I climbed the cement steps near the bus area, and when the girl sat the hat near the top of the fence, I jumped up and grabbed it for B.

Suddenly I heard a bloodcurdling cry emitting from the girl’s mouth. At the time it sounded like “You WITCH!” but even then I knew that wasn’t the word she had said. I think I dropped the hat or let her rip it out of my hands, for the shock from the word, from the expression of it, had shaken any ounce of heroism I had in me. I also know I began crying. Running from the fence, I ran into a girl from my class (coincidentally the shortest girl in our class) who saw me crying and took me to the teacher on duty. Poor Mrs. L., who would be my first grade and favorite teacher, asked me what was wrong.

“That girl called me a name!” I said through big hiccupping sobs. Any onlooker would have thought the girl had killed my dog or stabbed me through the throat the way I wept.

“What was it?” Mrs. L. asked.

I remember panic setting in. I didn’t know. I knew it sounded like “witch,” but I’d never heard the word before. For all I knew, the word could have been very complimentary, and maybe the girl had dubbed me queen of the playground. But the way she had said it, how it left her mouth and the sting it left when my ears tasted I – that was how I knew it was mean. She had said it to hurt my feelings, and she had.

“I don’t want to say it,” I said, the sobbing subdued to sniffles.

“Whisper it in my ear,” she said.

She leaned down and there I was, inches from her adult haircut and pierced ear. I know I said something, either “witch” or “it sounded like ‘witch.’” But at that point I didn’t care. I hadn’t been trying to get the girl in trouble; I hadn’t even known what she’d done to make me upset. But the damage was done. I’d been hit with a word, and I knew its impact before I knew what it meant.

Mrs. L. interrogated the student, and she lied about what had happened and what she’d said. Again, I didn’t really care. B. had his hat back, so I’d been victorious after all.

We all have moments like this in language, whether we remember them or not. I’d grown up dictating stories to my mother, making her write down the words to the pictures I’d drawn, and the “books” at the end were some of my prized possessions (note: these were never taken to show-and-tell). But until that day, when a bully was able to strike fear in me with a single utterance, one word that didn’t even register in my vocabulary, I never realized how powerful words, or a single word, could be. Gloria Naylor writes about this in her essay “The Meanings of a Word” which originally appeared in the New York Times in 1986. She writes about the first time she heard the word nigger and how it was because of its use by a classmate that it registered so clearly, so resolutely as a negative term. She goes on to examine the word and its uses. But before she writes about the word itself, she introduces the idea of language:

Language is the subject. It is the written form with which I’ve managed to keep the wolf away from the door and, in diaries, to keep my sanity. In spite of this, I consider the written word inferior to the spoken, and much of the frustration experienced by novelists is the awareness that whatever we manage to capture in even the most transcendent passages falls far short of the richness of life.

Words, however powerful their individual meanings, gain significance because of how we use them. This idea made me want to write in the first place, to put pen to paper and try to combine words so they could have an impact on the people that read them, however few and far between those people are. As for being a “witch” or a “bitch” or a mixture of the two, I suppose I don’t care very much at this point in my life. After all, depending on how you use them, there are good versions of both.


“—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!”

      From Book 1, Paterson by William Carlos Williams

My mother is a piece of music, composed of flowing melody and grace notes that repeat sweetly and often. My father is a book of comedy, laden with jokes and the wondering afterthoughts of deeper mysteries that humor cannot expose. What I have learned, intuitively at a very young age, and now consciously accept is that my family is a family of things. Some people see this as a bad thing. In our materialistic society, the yearning for unnecessary things is something we are taught as we learn about and accept capitalism: those that have money have things and will prosper. Many people will remember Show & Tell days at school, and the stresses they suffered while trying to come up with the biggest bang for their two minutes of time in the proverbial second grade sun. Someone who had the greatest toy (or the unbeatables—the parents who would bring a dog or interesting pet), could entertain an entire day of glory. While this idea in itself has ethical and moral issues, I think that despite the feelings of guilt or aversion, there is joy in knowing what physical things are needed, but are not necessary, in a human life.

A few months ago I helped my parents go through my grandmother’s house. Her dementia and Alzheimer’s taking a turn for the worse, she and my step-grandfather moved into a nursing home, leaving behind years of furniture, dishware, and clothes. And even though my grandma unfortunately doesn’t remember everything about herself and wouldn’t if she saw what we packed into boxes and took to divide amongst ourselves or left for auction, through her things, we received insight into what makes up a life. Grandma had knickknacks of all kinds, colors, and sizes—Avon figurines emptied of their cologne, gold metal horses, and angels playing violins or singing, or standing elegantly in their heavenly regalia. She collected dolls: babies, grown women, men, porcelain faced and delicate cheeks painted in rosy hues, and one creepy clown that appeared to have imbibed in spirits, its visage plastered to be plastered forever.

While these objects were all interesting, these were the things I already knew about her. They were bits and pieces that made up my childhood vision of who my grandmother was. When added up, they are just a fraction of her and her life, but they were a fraction nonetheless.

In the basement, we found the boxes. Grandma had saved mementos from her home in Kentucky, autograph books from her school years up to eighth grade in Chicago, letters from men in the military during World War II including every single letter from my grandfather. They divorced after nearly three decades of marriage, and despite resentment (for complicated and various reasons) from each side remaining until his death, she kept those letters in a box, neatly collected together with string, each top crease of each envelope carefully torn with a letter opener held in waiting fingers over sixty years ago. The meaning behind her keeping these last mentioned letters is twofold: she cared enough to keep them, but it is doubtful if she went through them once she tossed all of them all in the box together, each former suitor associated with her past life. These were things my father didn’t care to read, let alone examine. Some things we keep aren’t what others want to remember.

On my mother’s side, things also have value. My grandfather had a hobby of antiquing, a hobby that turned into two garages he built by hand to contain all his metal signs, seed bags, and hog oilers. I loved to go to his shed where he often worked, and look at all the “old.” I could write a book about all of his antiques and the emotional and monetary value in his things. Unlike my father’s mother, my grandfather was able to watch his things be divvied up at several auctions. Phonographs, tin, iron, and brass toys and penny banks, magazines over sixty years old,  tools, farm equipment, everything my teenage mind could think of—it all seemed to grow out of the woodwork of Grandpa’s life as more and more was sold. Part of what Grandpa found valuable was not only the thing itself, but the value that other people saw in it. He sold his items, and he knew the right price. But he could part with them.

I don’t know if it was his age or maybe his logical brain didn’t attach to each thing once he acquired so much, but watching him relinquish all he had collected throughout his life was a story in itself. Hundreds of stories, really, about where these things came from and what they meant not only to him, but the dozens of people before him who had implemented that tool or hung that mirror on a wall. Grandpa could live the remaining years contentedly, knowing his antiques, his things, had found new life.

Things are important. I think we hang on to the objects and mementos that remind us of a happy, not necessarily happier, time. My mother has saved all the significant toys from my older brother’s, twin sister’s, and my childhood. Even though she is her father’s daughter and probably has undiagnosed symptoms of hoarding, or in the very least, packrat-ness, there are other underlying emotions that make me fully support her decision to this day. While the Rainbow Brite dolls, Precious Places, and Legos are not going to make us millionaires (or even thousand or hundredaires) down the road, these toys probably mean more to my mother than they do to us. She wanted children so desperately (think Jennifer Garner’s character in Juno); she was born to be a mother. And while she’s happy with her adult children, she’s held onto those toys, boxed up and out of sight, knowing that even though someday her grandchildren will find joy in them, the joy they already brought is enough to make them worthy of keeping.

Who knows if I’ll be willing to give away my precious toys to any future children? A selfish endeavor, but I could probably complete that task quite handedly. Maybe I’ll never be able to part with my first jewelry box or the first dining room table my husband and I purchased. I’m okay with that, aside from my jealousy of my future offspring playing with Molly, the American Girl Doll, and her very similar knockoff acquired earlier at a Target store named Hannah. Some things I will part with, and I will become more objects in the future. For now, I know I am composed of the  people who also lived in things, and I am content to admit that I too am made up of things, some I’ve known for a long time, and others that I realized over time. I am a quilt stitched in pieces of pink, white, and navy. I am a baby blanket, the white cotton wearing and the edges torn off and dangling precariously by threads. A collection of decoupaged Robert Frost poems over a teal coffee table. A red pleated skirt. A tin whistle.  But my heart rests in pen and paper, blank and ready for the ideas that will fill it, ideas formed from things.