As I walked down the dusty gravel road, carrying my brown paper lunch bag, happily anticipating the first day of school in the second grade, I twirled around from time to time, delighting in the way my full skirt billowed around me. I was wearing my new dress my mom had fashioned out of feed sacks. The fabric was a white background almost completely smothered by small blue flowers interspersed with large yellow daisies. Blue crocheted lace circled the collar.
Choosing the bright fabric was easy for me. The difficult part was getting two matching feed sacks so there was enough fabric for the twirly skirt I wanted. Mom cut a four-by-four swatch of the fabric and gave it to my dad with instructions to get chicken feed in a sack that exactly matched the sample. My dad was macho enough to handle his friends’ comments while he sorted through sacks of chicken feed until he found the sack that matched the swatch my mom had given him. I was delighted when the folded bag was ready for my mom’s sewing magic.
When I walked into the schoolhouse that first day, my teacher Miss Andrews smiled, admired my dress, commented on the Peter Pan collar and big bow in the back, and then said, “Oh my, you look like a sunny yellow flower garden.” Stunned by the unexpected compliment, I ran back outside, too embarrassed to respond. In my home a comment like “you look nice” was extravagant language. Compliments, I had learned, would only make me “think above my station.”
“You look like a sunny yellow flower garden” was poetic and exotic, and I glowed inside when I realized she was talking about me.
Words matter. Words really matter.
For me, spoken words never disappear, are never totally silenced. Somewhere in the atmosphere every word that has ever been spoken floats and bobbles and spins, waiting to be recalled. Many words lurk in dark, dangerous clusters, but others gambol in light, protective clusters.
In word purgatory, hateful, angry words printed with grave black ink ominously billow on stained sheets pinned to invisible clothes lines. As we live, we must be alert to these harsh, hurtful words that can attack at any moment, spoiling a good conversation or deliberately making someone desperately unhappy. We must guard against the uncomfortable dismay we feel when evil words tumble from the lips of those we want to love and respect. “I hate you.” “You’re so stupid.” “Go back to where you came from.” Once said, no apology can erase the ugly residue of these words. The pain that is felt by the one who is pummeled by these words never goes away.
Competing for space in the atmosphere are all the kind, comforting words printed with lovely calligraphy on silken scarves draped from silvery hooks. Words like: “How can I help?” “I am so sorry.” “It’s not your fault.” “You are loved.” Gentle words are as soft against the skin as a loving hug. They convince us that we have value, that we are not taking up space that could be better used by someone else. Soothing words pop into our hearts and minds to drive out despair and grief.
At school that day when I first wore my new dress, I tried to hide my special feeling of pride, but admit I did spread out my bright flowery skirt over the bench where I sat so everyone would notice it. It didn’t matter that my sensible brown shoes were dusty from the long walk on gravel, that my white anklets were a bit grimy, and that the yellow ribbon tied to a hairpin my mom had clipped to my hair was untied and dangling. I wrote in the back of my notebook: “Oh, my, you look like a sunny yellow flower garden.” Eighty years later as I see those lovely words printed on this page they still nurture and comfort, and I hear Miss Andrews’ warm voice, and I smile.
Phyllis Henry writes from her perch overlooking a retaining pond in Gig Harbor.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS