A few years back when my grandpa passed away I not only lost my last grandparent, but the world lost one cool cat; a man who not only played trombone in the Sooner band, but married his college sweetheart who was, in his words, “the prettiest girl in Norman,” and he had a penchant for saying, “Dear Gussie!” in his measured Midwestern lilt whenever you impressed or shocked him, which delighted me to no end. He was known as a man who had a way with words and he could spin a tale that kept the rapt attention of all his grandkids, especially me.
When the extended Graves family got together to say good-bye to Daniel Maloy Graves II we each took turns sharing a favorite memory. My dad shared several memories, but one in particular made a lasting impression, “He had the best vocabulary and a system to improve it. When he would come across a word he didn’t know, he’d look it up and write down the definition. He would then make a point of using that word in conversation at least three times the next day to commit it to memory. I always admired that.”
If you needed proof you could head over to his house in Dayton, Ohio where any book in his library would hold underlined passages and words with definitions scrawled in the margin. I remember standing in the cemetery in Norman, Oklahoma watching the smile spread across my dad’s face as he shared this family factoid, the lines around his eyes softening, shining through the tears. I was struck by the tale, not only because my grandfather lost his stories and vocabulary to Alzheimer’s but because I do this too. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was an inherited trait or perhaps something I witnessed long ago during those Dayton summers and somehow committed to memory. I love underlining passages that speak to me and the thrill looking up new words to add to my vocabulary. I didn’t go as far as trying to use them in sentences, but after that day in Norman? I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I’ve since picked-up.
The other night as I sat reading “An Irreverent Curiosity” by David Farley I stumbled across a new word: “atavistic”. True to form, I grabbed my iPhone and fired up the Dictionary app to enlighten me (although in hindsight, I wonder whether Siri would have told me? Another experiment for another day). And, as luck would have it, Marc looked up from his own reading at the same time and snapped a picture of me in all my logophilic glory. The next day an email appeared and there I was, caption and all. It seemed a fitting tribute to the Graves family trait and one that I honor every time I pick up a book.
And yes, I did my darndest to use atavistic in a sentence three times the next day. Grandpa Graves would be proud.