Sara, Cheryl and I strolled back from shopping and eating, toward their dormitory, pressing up against double-parked cars to make way for the traffic of buzzing scooters. We had bought fruit; Sara and I had then bought deep-fried chicken hearts, a duck head, green beans, pig intestines, and other spicy goodies. We had eaten them from their greasy paper bag sitting in a drink shop, I sipping my strawberry yogurt drink, she with her grapefruit juice. Cheryl, her heart and stomach still in Saskatchewan, pulled out a package of chocolate chip cookies. I spat out the duck neck bones into an ash tray. “What eyes? What brains?” I asked Cheryl as I gnawed the head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” She shook her head, laughing.
As we crossed a street cacophonous with vertical, lit signs, Sara asked me, “Brian, what’s a word for laipi, you know, for a kid who cries a lot and doesn’t do what he is told?” The word “awnrey” popped into my thoughts right off. But when I told Sara, I had a sneaking suspicion this word might not be universally used. I asked Cheryl. She shook her head.
“No, I’ve never heard that word,” she said. It dawned on me that that word, not heard in decades, not since my since my sisters and brothers and I raised a ruckus on Hickory Lane – came from my mother, and no one else. Perhaps that lineage made me suspect its universality: isn’t the father associated with universal norms and public space, whereas our mothers are viewed, covertly or not, as steeped in the particularity of local places?
“What an awnrey child,” I can picture mom muttering in some nowhere of the imagined past, perhaps using a wash rag to keep shampoo foam away from my little brother’s eyes as he squirms naked in the tub. But though I could hear her say it, I could not picture the words written. I tried explaining the word to Cheryl as we walked. “The funny thing is, I don’t know how it is spelled,” I said, “I don’t even think I have ever seen in written.”
Finding a word in the dusty parts of my mind that had never been printed was an odd, oddly wonderful feeling. What are the chances of that? I thought. Almost three decades of reading, and here is a word in English, imprinted in my memory, no less, which I have never seen written. I guess it is not surprising that the kind of word that could slip through the net of an invasive, all-encompassing literacy would be a word only used in the home, in childhood, a word only used by mom. And she, too, had probably inherited the word from her childhood. I felt I had trod on a pearl, my toes unexpectedly curling around it in the mud.
Writing has been my love, but recently I have sensed that it has also become a tool of obsessive control born of insecurity. What is worse, it is an ineffective tool: it can help me represent my thoughts to myself, but it cannot order the world, nor can it tell me which decision is best. Last year I stopped writing a journal for the first time since I was 8 or 9. It was my mother who had given me the thin blue notebook as my Sunday school teacher. She, whose writing is limited to notes jotted about the day’s events and appointments, had opened for me the door of a universal writing – a kind of masculine relation to the world – and pushed me through it. And I had run eagerly, hungry for the transient sense (and constant promise) of a mastery that it could provide.
I thought a bit more as we walked, past the coin-operated dinosaurs and trains that rocked little kids back and forth, past the lit glass boxes full of cuddly stuffed animals and a steel claw – a metaphor for capitalist consumer culture if there ever was one! Then the thought hit me. Feeling the word roll off my tongue again pointed me to its source – a word I would not have known way back when.
“Hey Cheryl,” I said, “you’re from a dairy farm. Do you know the word ‘ornery’?” She looked puzzled.
“I think I have heard it, somewhere, but I can’t say I would know how to use it.”
“I only know it from Western movies, or from talking to one of my brothers-in-law from rural Utah,” I said. “It means cranky, like a hard-to-handle horse or a mean old man, something like that. I bet anything this is where my mom got ‘awnrey.’” But did she know that was where it came from?
The night was still, full of a drizzle not ready to fall. Age 34 and somehow Sara’s question about how to translate laipi – a word I had not really understood before – had brought up a word so effortlessly from memory I could have used it yesterday. How can memory make thirty years like a day? It is as startling as talking to someone 12,000 miles away on a connection that sounds like next door. And why was I so happy to discover this word? Certainly it was the surprise of discovering in my over-written mind a word that had rolled unobtrusively under the bed, to lie in a dusty margin beyond the broom of book learning. There was a whiff of freedom, of evasion. There was a whiff of a speech undisciplined by the bent back, the curled fingers, the tensed wrist of writing. Grouchy, cantankerous little awnrey/ornery had crouched down behind a hedge in the yard as childhood faded into night and the sky filled up with writing. I grew up, obedient as a spring day. But there the little word stayed, a gift of memory, given long ago.
Postscript: Last night I called my parents while Sara was in the shower. As usual my mom asked me how I was and then said, “Here, let me give you to dad.” After running through thee doings of my 8 brothers and sisters, I was about to say it was getting late when I remembered the word.
“Dad, you know the word ‘awnrey,’ right?” Sara was lying next to me on the blanket-covered floor that was our bed, laughing. “How do you spell it?” He at least thought he had seen it written somewhere, but his mind followed the pronunciation one way – “onery” – and the spelling – “ornery” – another. He was befuddled.
“Hey mother, do you know how to spell ‘awnrey’?” I heard him say. She too was unsure. “I think of ‘ornery’ as being for old farmers or cattlemen,” he said, “But I wouldn’t say the word myself unless I wanted to affect a hillbilly accent.” I laughed. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times my staid bishop dad had ever affected anything.
“Well, when you and mom are at church next, make sure you ask someone from the east if they know the word,” and he laughed and said he would.