by Joanell Serra
My mother chose words like gems, plucked from piles of baubles and trinkets. She never settled for the first, lazy, easily discovered, word. Her hands, crippled over time by a relentless disease, would move gently through the air as she searched for the right descriptive.
He was recalcitrant. She might say, in describing her grandfather. She was infatuated when she met my father, at seventeen. And he, the handsome man who walked up and down the aisles of her high school typing class dictating, was dapper. Even debonair.
As a writer, I long for her expertise, years after her death. Curled up on a chilly afternoon with a cup of lukewarm tea, I muse over the page I’ve just written, then eye the shadows in the corners for a presence, hoping for a mellifluous whisper from beyond.
I’m searching for her kind of words – words that will make my reader’s heartbeats accelerate. Words that are as sweet as the nectar of honeysuckle flowers, that pull one sentence to another, like the taffy pulled in the summer time at the Jersey Shore. Words that stretch, or poke, or even pinch, like a feisty Aunt. Words that awaken all the possibilities of prose. Words that shift the lens from blurry to startlingly clear.
I say to my ghost mother, who is as real to me as my characters, gathered in my mind, “Here is my struggling scene, still embryonic:
My character is not just old but . . very, very old? The beer he drinks is too warm. He neglected to drink it, caught in the web of an old man’s thoughts. The cane, dragged across a room, makes that scratchy noise. What is that sound? And the first star, appearing in the twilight sky early and unexpected, awakens in the old man a sliver of hope, a feeling so unusual it pains his slowing heart. But not hope, that is too mundane, too pedestrian, an overused word altogether.”
And my mother reaches across time and space, from death to life, from the Elysian Islands to San Francisco, and teases the words out of my unconsciousness, onto the page. As she once guided my steps as I wobbled across the wet grass, my hand as she taught me to write letters with long, gentle strokes.
The man is not just old, he is archaic. The beer is tepid. His cane rasps across the rotting wooden floor. And the hope he feels, as the first star appears? Just a sliver of expectation, a breath of anticipation. Perhaps a shiver, in recognition of his previous sanguinity?
Yes. That’s it. A recognition of previous sanguinity.
My mother instilled in me a hunger for delicious prose, and then fed words to me with each meal. Words that stretched like my grilled Swiss cheese sandwiches, words as tart as her apricot and plum pie, words that dripped, like honey dripping from the spoon, words that wafted like the steam from my fresh cup of tea.