Finding the Words

      Growing up without television in rural North Carolina, imagination is the key to recreation..

It’s the 90’s and life is an adventure, with wooded trails to explore, bases to infiltrate alongside childhood comrades, and trees to climb as high the branches will go. But when it’s rainy outside or too dark to play, a pencil and paper offer entry into another world of boundless discovery.  

It’s the 90’s and I write for myself, for school, and for my Great Grandmother who enjoys my reflections. Her loyalty to articulation brings out the composer in me, allowing words to orchestrate beautiful pictures in my mind. Early on, I learn that words have the power to illustrate an idea and bring imagination to life…


Sitting in an elementary school classroom, I’m surrounded by peers and we’re cutting pictures out of magazines with colorful plastic kid-scissors. We’re told to write poems about what we see, and our classroom walls quickly fill with glossy pictures and hand-written verse, like a G-rated teenage bedroom. It is a simple task — describing what has been already captured in a picture; but the words seem to bring the picture to life, giving the scene new meaning in my mind. The same, I will soon find, can be applied to real life.

Spotting a picture of overflowing wads of cash, advertising some sort of “Get Cash Now” scheme, I carefully cut the image out, and with my orange glue stick paste it to a crisp white sheet of paper. Scribbling in green crayon with my best cursive, I add beside it:
“Money, money, it’s all anybody thinks about,
banks and mailmen on their route,
like a money hog with a snout,
if people don’t have money they will pout,
money, money is to be found out.”
After my poem receives a chuckle and a smile from my teacher, I begin to feel the urge to find out why money is, indeed, so important. Over the next few days I mentally document everything my parents buy from the store, and try to imagine the value in stacks of cash, compared against the picture’s advertisement.

Later in the week, my mother takes me to visit my Great Grandmother where she lives with other elderly people in a large building. We go to the cafeteria where the residents snack and chat, and we ask for three hot chocolates, with whipped cream. Strangely, we don’t have to exchange any money this time…

Setting our red mugs on the round oak table we slowly pull out the wooden chairs as they screech loudly across the floor. My eyes rest upon the steaming beverages, glowing in the morning sunshine which pours in through the window and lands directly on our table. It’s chilly outside, and the sunlight feels good. The sweet aroma of our hot chocolates offers instant comfort and everything in the room seems to temporarily pause, allowing me to savor our moment together. Finally, wrapping my small fingers around my cup and raising it to my lips, I feel the steamy heat on my face and, sipping vigilantly, my entire body tingles with warmth. My Great Grandmother shares stories of her teaching years, and I listen intently. It seems so satisfying to stand at the front of a classroom helping others learn how to read and write, like there is no greater honor in the world.

“I love novels that take you on a memorable journey” my Great Grandmother passionately declares. As I finish gulping down another sip of hot chocolate I add, “Catching the wave and feeling the flow is exciting.” She smiles at me, and sensing approval, I continue, “I also love how the more times you read a book you learn and understand new things that you didn’t the first time.” With a nod she explains, “As you read, you often develop your own understanding of the message. Going back through you pick up on the keys that correlate to your overall enlightenment.” Considering her words, there is a feeling of simple satisfaction in understanding. I continue to listen to my Great Grandmother, absorbing every word and sipping my hot chocolate sparingly now, trying to stretch every sip. This moment we share together is worth any amount of money to me. Envisioning a still shot of our steaming cups, I try to imagine a glossy advertisement for this moment. “What about the smell,” I think to myself, “what about the warmth? No, a picture would not do…” Only the poems we wrote in class could convey these feelings and recapture what my senses experience.

“I’m finding pictures to write poems about in class right now,” I share with excitement. Wrinkles form around my Great Grandmother’s lips, illuminating years of happy thoughts, as the wisdom in her eyes dances with anticipation; “You know, it is true when they say a picture is worth a thousand words; but with the right words, it only takes a few to paint a masterpiece.” I pause, considering what she has said. The vision of a curly haired artist at his easel comes to mind, and beneath his paintbrush I see the stylishly written words, “I am painting a masterpiece.” With that, I realize that I could paint almost anything if I had the right words.

A worn, leather-bound thesaurus becomes my daily companion, crammed in my book bag with all my other texts and supplies, and every time I’m called to illustrate something, I reach for my thesaurus to carefully flip through the pages, rooting out every possible way to craft my words. My poetry begins to progress as I study and learn the associations between familiar words and new vocabulary, sparking entirely new rhyming schemes and paths of meaning that were previously hidden. Every experience becomes a literary expedition and it seems the more I describe my surroundings, the more I appreciate a truer beauty. My Great Grandmother and I write about gardens and sunsets, hot chocolate and daisies, painting the essence of each experience through the beautiful words that bring the sensation to life.

“When I get inspiration for my visions, I try to put it all on paper, but sometimes there is too much to think about at once,” I sigh out of disappointment one Saturday afternoon sitting with my Great Grandmother. I sit in silence, waiting for her to share her thoughts. “Often I have ideas gathered already,” she begins, “and I simply wait until the time and place to compose them. A simple journal entry can leave behind a cookie trail of memories and realizations to pick back up on later”. I quickly respond, “I love old memories. They are all meaningful in their own ways, which is why you remember them.” I feel slightly silly after my witty remark. She picks up from where I leave off and adds, “They are what make us the way we are today. Even certain events that your conscious mind deems unimportant and silly, there is a certain reason why they are remembered. They truly make more of a lasting impression than we often realize.” I nod in agreement, slowly repeating her words in my mind. I don’t want to forget her words. After that conversation, I keep a notebook with me at all times and I begin to write more frequently, leaving trails of promise, to rejoin in later ventures.

A few months have passed; I’m doing homework and the lead of my pencil has just broken against the grainy surface of my light blue construction paper. Mom gets a phone call from the retirement home. I peer, curiously from my seat, watching as her trembling hands hang up the curly wired phone. She closes her eyes; tears hide behind her eyelids. She takes a moment, and then opens her watery eyes, meeting mine with an emotion no words could ever fully capture… “Great Grandmommy didn’t wake up this morning,” mom whispers gently.

Less than a week later we sit in church pews, dressed in our best. My Mom wears a black long skirt and button up dress-shirt, with a white belt and black shoes. Her hair is neatly brushed backwards, full bodied, shiny and black as usual. I wear a green dress, one of the only dresses I own, and sit between my Mother and Grandmother. Sucking on a butterscotch candy my Grandmother found in her soft beige purse, I’m glued to my seat like an anchor in the cold, ocean waves, quietly listening to the speaker at the front of the church. He explains how faithfully Great Grandmother helped everyone around her learn about life, before beginning the rest of her life in heaven. His words are eloquent, touching everyone in the room with just the right sensitivity and positivity. Others follow him, getting up to share their own stories about her life with the rest of the people in room, people who loved her. I wish I had written something to share, too. The preacher concludes with a short sermon and we all get in our cars and drive to where her body is laid to rest. I’ve brought flowers- white daisies I’d picked from my Grandparent’s garden, the daisies we’d written about; I leave them at my Great Grandmother’s grave site before we all ride home.

It isn’t until I am back in my room that I begin to cry. I want to hide my tears because I don’t want anyone to ask me if I am okay or how I am doing. I don’t know the answer. But I do have feelings to share. Thoughts race through every corridor of my mind, searching for a doorway to take comfort in, but no comfort is found. The only place I can lay these thoughts to rest, or give them new life, is on paper.

I start writing to my Great Grandmother about how much I miss her and how she helped me see everything with the right words.

I try to find the right words.

The lead of my pencil begins smearing against the paper as my tears land in my pencil’s path. I try to erase the illegible watermarked lettering, but only leave a bigger mess of blackened smudge. Frustrated and crying, I stop writing and start reading. Reading, and re-reading, I begin to find something beyond the words I had collected at first, and finally develop a complete letter that somehow captures my sorrow, giving it a place of refuge.

The next day, at my pleading we go back to my Great Grandmother’s grave and I give her my letter. Wide-eyed and solemn, I stare at the loose petals beneath the bouquet I’d left the previous day, and a tear slips away from my youthful lashes and lands upon the freshly broken soil. Why are my flowers withering away so soon? I ponder this, until finally coming to the conclusion that I will just have to find more beautiful flowers to share with Great Grandmommy tomorrow.

As I stand there alone, there are words for everything. I see the sunset resting on the placid rolling hills, painted in shades of orange, scarlet and indigo, quietly meditating before slipping away into the night.

One could spend a lifetime finding the right words to describe this world, and that’s just what we’ve got. We experience in order to learn, and what we gather from this lifetime will be carried forth forever, living in the words we found.  My Great Grandmother knew the importance of love and communication, and before passing beyond the limits of this physical world, she left in me a love for language. Words create a bridge between an internal kingdom and the peripheral world, and finding the right words unlocks a more beautiful world.

This world is my narrative, with beautiful words resonating through every layer of life; I simply have to find the right words. Tomorrow will be a new dawn, and in it, new beauty to discover.

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