Webster's Says

November 28, 2010

Do not open a dictionary. If it doesn’t fall on a foot first, smashing the only toe that evolution has decided we actually need, a dictionary will expand and suck the world into a wordy vortex of syllables, unleashing the fury of words unused, words like collywobbles – stomach rumblings -- and gastromancy – fortune telling by way of stomach rumblings. These unused words are hunting for revenge, the kind that flashes across a T.V. tuned to the Discovery Channel at midnight. Be afraid; this revenge will manifest itself in the unsuspecting dictionary-reader’s vocabulary. I, for instance, knew I’d lost when, in response to an inquiry from my Jenny Craig counselor, I smiled like a perfectly normal teenager and threw out my own form of verbal vomit.

“Well, I’ve been pretty good about staying on my diet and all, but I splurged the other day, so I’m feeling a bit crapulent.”

Far earlier than expected, I was ushered out of the Jenny Craig center and spent a full twenty minutes on the curb, alternatively cursing at SUV tires grazing the sidewalk and wishing I had a car, so that I too could engage in Mini Van: Ultimate Doom. I’m pretty sure they’ve got it on X-Box, which, surprisingly enough, does not have an entry in the dictionary.

Even more enticing than the words themselves are the definitions. Most dictionaries generally define definitions as statements of meaning. For me, in my awkward pre-adolescent years, definitions made sense of the nonsensical. Solid, tangible, and inescapably clear, definitions are definite, black print locked onto pages that seem ageless and changeless, only added to and never altered. And, whatever a dictionary couldn’t give me, Uncle Robert did. He’s significant in my story, and not only because he’s one of the only people whom I call “uncle” that has actually inherited the title.

My family’s composed of friendly people. Inevitably, then, we have many family friends, all of whom I’ve been obliged to call “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Webster’s says that a friend is a person to whom you are emotionally bound. An uncle, on the other hand, is defined as a mere blood relation. Uncle Robert, though my mother’s brother, was more of a friend, especially because he inspired more of an emotional attachment than any uncles of my parent’s choice.

He was bald, bald as a ping-pong ball. His eyes were dark. They flashed from side to side a lot, the way eyes watching a ping-pong game do. Like a ping-pong ball, his mind too had a way of snapping back and forth rapidly, sticking on a single topic for only a limited amount of time. Occasionally, however, the ball would drop and he’d zone in on one idea. It’d then take awhile for him to pick up the ball again and continue the game. Case in point, at a relative’s very Jewish wedding, complete with long bearded men in black and women who probably had never seen their own knees, we were discussing manatees.

“But, Uncle Robert, that makes no sense.”

“Of course it makes sense!”

He couldn’t believe I didn’t think manatees were sea cows.

“No, it doesn’t. Does it say there are any spots on them?”

I lifted my dictionary, stabbing at the definition of a manatee with my finger.

“Who says they need spots?”

“Webster does.”

“What else does Webster say?”

“’Pronunciation: man – a – tee…of chiefly tropical origin – ‘”

“Does it say how many of them are killed by boats every year?”

I looked up at him with a raised eyebrow, face knitting itself together.


“What about the ones that just lose their fins?”


“What about the pain they’ve probably got to live with? I mean, losing a fin has to hurt, right?”

I shook my head, whether it was in agreement or not I can’t say. He smiled, his mouth stretching across his face, revealing a set of teeth that gleamed like the top of his hairless head.

“Well, I guess that next time, you’ll just need an encyclopedia. By the way, what do you want for your Bat Mitzvah?”

We never quite got there, to the Bat Mitzvah, I mean. I knew I loved him. I knew he loved me. I also knew he was dying. Cancer, his doctor said. Can’t be helped. There’s really nothing we can do. I’m sorry.

My Uncle Robert was buried on a Friday. At least, I think it was a Friday. It could have just as easily been a Tuesday or Easter or Kwanzaa. Webster’s says a funeral is a ceremony meant to pay homage to a person recently deceased. I guess that’s true. There were flowers, food, people dressed in black, and a coffin. I was twelve, old enough to brush my own teeth, but young enough that my socks and my dress had to match my headband. I sat, legs tucked beneath me, in the grass outside the funeral home, beyond the pews and the vases that were taller than I was. I grazed my fingers over the pages of Webster’s New World Dictionary. I saw grief, I saw despair, I saw lugubrious. I saw his coffin, the biggest shoebox I’d ever seen, lined in wood veneer. And, as I flipped each page, listening to the rustle of each sheet as it rolled backward and snapped, I also saw morose, sullen, and suicidal. None of them stopped me from crying out, screaming, wailing, clinging to my dictionary, when the coffin slipped into the ground and into eternity. On my knees, the coffin sink. My tears fell and my cries rose, ascending into a crescendo of agony. The sun, yolky, as if flung from a frying pan, hung high in the heights of a pure sky, mocking me. Trees lined the graveyard, spreading shade across patches of grass that rolled into the distance, disappearing in a far-off forest of birches and mystery. Those branches, reaching to the heavens and to him, moved with the wind And, as the funeral guests all stared at me, I watched the smoke of the memorial candles twist through tree branches, disappearing into an annihilating sky.

I’m sitting at his grave right now, knees folded in the grass. Every time I’m here, the epitaph seems to sink deeper into the stone, just like my uncle’s coffin did on that day. Every time I’m here, life makes more sense. Not too much more, because no one, including Webster, has ever said that life’s meant to make any sense at all. There’s some comfort in the certainty of each definition, but there’s no promise. Eventually, we all have to ditch our dictionaries.

“We have to go. Come on!”

My mom’s calling me. I do have to go. I slide my legs forward and stand up haltingly, one shoulder dipping and then another, like a cow, really. I lift each finger slowly, loosening my grasp on the dictionary I’ve always carried with me. I’m leaving it with him, leaning the volume, as thick as my hand and twice as long, against the tombstone. I feel each leg jerk in front of the other. I’m walking away.

After all, I’ve yet to find a definition that reads, “Let go and live.”

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