January 26,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I had an uneasy dream last night. In it I was with a relative, who was attempting, via a Ouija board, to contact my grandmother. As I watched, the Ouija board began to spell out something, but I was too scared to watch, and ran away before I could see the words the letters made. When I woke up I remembered the dream right away. Why hadn't I stayed to watch? I wondered. What would the letters have spelled? Perhaps some important message, some meaning, that would forever be lost to me. Or maybe nothing--nonsense words, strung together in a frightening jumble. Maybe I'd run away in my dream because I was afraid of seeing nothing but nonsense words, clutter, frightening disconnect, loss. ********* I have a flowery cardboard box on the shelf on top of my closet. In it are treasures I have carted around with me, through several moves across time and space. I have piles of letters I've saved--mainly from my mom and sister, but also several from Scott. Under a pile of letters and photos I found one from my grandmother, written in her beautiful, spidery lettering. It was written when my grandfather was also still alive, before T. was born, since in it she refers to the both of them thinking about me, and missing me. She signed it for my Grandfather as well, as she always did--with love from your Grandmother and Grandfather she wrote at the bottom, her letters "G" all large loops and swirls, all graceful just as she was in life. I showed T. the letter, and read it to her, too. Then I put it away, but not without feeling a stab of sadness. I am also so grateful I have it, though. Coincidentally, when I talked with my mom a few days later she had also been going through a box and also found a letter from my grandmother, her mother. What if we didn't have these letters? Recently I gave my students an essay to read, on living without/with words. The author, as the result of a neurological condition, had lost the appropriate use of language for almost a decade. The loss left her with a profound sense of respect and awe for language. Don't take it for granted! she advises her readers. For through language we connect with our ancestors before us. We open our mouths and conjure up lost parents and grandparents and cousins and brothers and sisters. My students were a little dumbfounded by this concept. They exist in a world of fleeting words. They type e-mails and they're swallowed up by a simple purging of an in-box, or a wayward finger on the delete key. "What can we do about this?" A young man asked me, sincerely, in class. "Write letters," I told him. "Lots of them. Get others to write to you. Seal them away in a box somewhere and take the box with you, wherever you go." One day all of us will need to open up our own boxes, and to sit down and rifle through the past; to see loved ones alive again in their words, to read the words out loud to our own kids, so they see them, too. I'm not sure what my dream meant, but I do know it was connected to the letters, and to the sudden frightening notion I had after talking with my mom that we might be moving into a world in which letters cease to exist; where ten or twenty or thirty or fifty years down the road there will be empty shelves in countless closets, and boxes like mine will be a thing of the past. I imagine all the voices floating disembodied in some great dark space, unclaimed. Living without words seems too terrible to even imagine; maybe that's was I was running from in my dream, a world without letters, without a past, without a voice.