What’s in a Word?

urnWhat’s in a Word?

When my cousin Ruth phoned, I said, “You were nice to call. I bet you remembered this is the day my mother died. “
“Alice,” she said, and I could just see her primming her lips, “nobody says died any more. You really should say she passed.”
“Passed what?” I said cackling, “…you mean like passed out, passed the sandwiches or passed the bar….hey, Mom would never pass the bar without stopping in.”
No laughter on the other end of the phone. Finally Ruth said, “Well, you can say passed on or passed over if you want.”
“Doesn’t make sense to me. What’s the matter with just saying she died?”
“It…I guess it just sounds so final,” she replied.
“Well, it is final. You are born, you live and then you die. And that means you do not exist any more. Finished. Kaput.”
“I don’t think that’s a very nice way to talk about Aunt Peggy. She was a lovely person.”
“She was indeed and I miss her every day. But one of the reasons I say she died is because she taught me never to use a fancy word when there was a plain one at hand.”
“Such as?”
“Such as don’t say stationery. Say writing paper instead. For the same reason, don’t say hosiery, say stockings or socks. One word my mother truly detested was lingerie. When referring to the neat pink pile in her bureau drawer, she always called them underpants: even though hers were made in Paris of embroidered silk and had pearl buttons and a loop instead of elastic. They would definitely qualify as lingerie in anybody’s book, but my mother thought only department stores and the French should use that word.
“She had such lovely clothes,” Cousin Ruth said with a sigh. Then more briskly, “But Alice, passed is not a fancy word like lingerie
“No, it’s not,” I agreed, “but it implies a fancy thought. It’s supposed to make you think that when my mother’s heart gave out ,she immediately started on a journey to her next destination. But I’m not sure she believed that.”
Ruth gasped.“Aunt Peggy didn’t believe in heaven?”
“I can’t say for sure. We never talked about it. Frankly, I think her idea of heaven was sitting down with a good book, a glass of bourbon at her right elbow. For sure she never told me she believed in a life after death.”
“But….but…” Ruth was sputtering now.
“Look, it was nice of you to call. I appreciate it. How are your kids? And your funny old dog? Still barking at butterflies?”
“Bosco? He died.” she said in a flat tone..
Died?” I let a small giggle escape. “He didn’t pass over or pass on?”
I couldn’t see her frown, but I could feel it. And hear her cold voice,“He was a dog, Alice.”
“So a dog can just plain die, but a human can’t?.”Silence at the other end. “Sorry Ruth and I’m sorry about Bosco too. He was a lot of fun. Did you bury him in the backyard with the others?”
“Uh, no.” Alice cleared her throat..”We actually had him cremated and are keeping his ashes in a nice ceramic container on a bookshelf in the study.”
“Well, thank God for that,” I said.
“You’re thanking God that we’re keeping Bosco’s ashes?”
“No. It’s just that for a terrible minute there, I thought you were going to call them Bosco’s cremains,”
Ruth either hiccuped or burped or laughed. “No, Alice, you’re safe there. The word cremains will never pass my lips.”
“It just did,” I hung up laughing and thinking how much my mother would have loved this conversation.


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