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All was ready in the breakfast room: upon each placement were the buttered toast, sectioned grapefruits, cereal and milk, and coffee for my parents. A jar of mother’s freshly cooked grape jelly sat in the center of the table with the condiments. Through the Venetian blinds sunrays slanted upon the walls like a military band in procession, or so I fantasized. Strains of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” came from the kitchen.

This was a special morning, and I knew it. I sat on the edge of my chair, waiting as I glanced at my siblings dressed in play clothes and jawing, taking swipes at each other; then, studied my heel, tender from new sandals. Mother was settling my youngest brother in his highchair when I heard his footsteps in the hall. It was my dad. It was about to happen.

In resounding tones, he said, “Happy First of September, everyone!” His warm smile briefly assuaged my chronic anxiety, as he took his place at the head of the table and opened his napkin. I could breathe in his presence. So breakfast and the beginning of a new month began, September being the most dreaded with the parochial school reopening after Memorial Day.  

Throughout my childhood, I anticipated this ritual and was never disappointed: his way of sharing joy, despite stresses from work which also required wearing one of his three-piece suits and tie, with the edge of a folded handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket.

His early death, however, prevented me from fully appreciating his selflessness, his knack for telling Irish jokes when tensions mounted over the supper meal. Dad served us very well and I’m grateful.

He was fussing for something, his dark eyes fired with desperation. He wanted something, badly, this very moment. He’d just woken from his nap. At intervals, his lips struggled with the semblance of a word, intelligible to him, but not to his mother kneeling next to him. “But!” it sounded like; then, “Chip!” Tension mounted between them. More sounds came from pursed lips, and more fussing and jiggling his bare feet on the kitchen floor.

To break the impasse, the mother placed her fist in her opened hand, their agreed-upon gesture for help. Immediately, the toddler understood, returned the gesture, and giggled; then, ran for his Sippy cup on the chair. He needed a drink. More giggles and hugging enlarged both worlds as she watched him suck on the plastic straw. His efforts to make speech rather than point were not lost on her. He was learning.

This anecdote reveals the difficulty of acquiring words and stringing them together in meaningful sentences to get our needs met—an ongoing task between the developing child and his parents. 

Yet, language is a living exchange among peoples and demands consciousness for accuracy. With more words coined to accommodate new experiences, this ongoing task continues throughout life. More than ever, relevance in speech and the printed word is urgent.

Such is the ideal to which I hold fast, despite the jargon, around me, that passes for communication and seeds global exchanges with confusion.

Returning to heart-solitude and listening deeply for the gift of words can warm the frigid condition of our language. Real intimacy is still possible.

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