Words Alone

by Malcolm Macdonald, June 1, 2016

I am surrounded by words: Newspapers, magazines, and mailings of all sorts mess up my desk, which is really just the southwest corner of this ranch house's kitchen. When there is no company, no visitors, the two closest table chairs are occupied by a thick Random House dictionary and at least one thesaurus. Books, that tend to be more non-fiction than novels these days, occupy not only numerous book shelves, but end tables and bedsides. Words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs seem to swirl everywhere. Beneath many of the words lie multiple definitions; variations on a theme and meanings utterly independent from one another. This makes communication a delicate balance.

My earliest memories involve a log house with passion vine overgrowing the north-sided porch; an Australian shepherd and a border collie sleeping on or near that porch, and our family inside at the dinner table chewing our meal and chewing the fat. My father, descended from taciturn Highland Scot Presbyterians, communicated his desire for the salad bowl or any food item beyond his reach with nothing more than a glance, if ignored, a prolonged stare.

My two sisters and I followed our mother’s lead, and that of all her blood kin, that the dinner table was not only a place to replenish proteins and vitamins, but a fountain of communication from which we drank more than water or milk; listening skills were honed sharp as the carving knife to grasp two or three conversations at once while participating in them too, not to mention literally chewing and swallowing our food at the same time. My mother’s mother, a talkative sort herself, nevertheless believed in the thirty-chews-to-a-bite system of food intake. There is no photo to prove it, but the Macdonald children at the dinner table, with our molars grinding and tongues flapping, must have appeared to blur the line between chewing the cud and the fat.

Slowly, as the breaking of a hard crust of bread, my father crumbled into a dinner talker also. He must have known what he was getting into, and been attracted to it, when he married a young woman of independence who commanded her own space.

I walk the steep hills and narrow valley of the Albion in search of inspiration to fill these spaces on the page. My mother proceeded in much the same manner while writing in the Beacon for nearly twenty-two years. Not too many years after my mother, Margaret Macdonald, began her weekly column writing the Beacon ceased production from its Mendocino office and moved in with the Advocate-News on Franklin Street in Fort Bragg. Now, in 2016, the Advocate-News/Beacon has downsized to a new locale on Highway One, just north of Cypress Street and Taco Bell. It's a long figurative distance from the days of William and August Heeser or Charles Cavanaugh.

The west wind muffles all outside sounds right now, except for the hiccup of a Hereford cow who has been prone to such boisterous throat clearings for years. Said Hereford is a meditative sort. Several winters ago I spied her studying her own reflection in a rain-swollen pond. I kept a distance, trying not to disturb her contemplative moments, and reflected, myself, on just what this mirror image on the water might mean to her.

Cattle express their emotions through lowing, a word preferable to mooing. Hlowan in Old English meant “to roar,” and is related to the Latin clamare which gives us clamor in modern usage. However, since cattle seem to be soothed more by human voices at a lower, deeper pitch, and save their bellowing roar only for important moments of high agitation I believe “lowing” is a more apt description for their everyday dinner talk, which, of course, was what the pond-staring Hereford was most preoccupied with: chewing her cud.

Words come and go, some reflect a truer self than a reflection in the mirror. Sometimes I still hear my parents words, their voices carried up from the river on a western zephyr. Occasionally I picture my mother and sisters chattering around the dinner table while my father sits silent, gazing at the pepper shaker, and words alone cannot reach back to pass it to him.

(The author's website can be found at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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