Love, Unabridged

We had this same dictionary, full of
delightfully obscure words and colorful
lithographs.Courtesy: PeachyChicBoutique
Mom read to us daily when we were small, then set us free in the public library as soon as we were old enough.

We had a giant old tome, a Webster's Unabridged, on an oak dictionary stand an arm's reach from our dining room table. My brother and I often looked up words, leading us to wend the maze of its yellowed pages, then beckon anyone within earshot to share the delight of our choicest finds. My sister unwittingly coined words of her own, which she spoke with such authority, the other students--even the teachers--never thought to question them. And we read each evening from the King James Bible--the Authorized King James Version. Despite--or maybe because of--its antiquated words and syntax, we preferred the KJV to the comparatively sterile New International Version.

This phone is available at
Laura's Last Ditch.
I suppose my brother, sister, and I have always loved language.

It's hard to say how much of our character, our likes and dislikes, come from mothers. But I attribute my love of old stuff, quality stuff, and my penchant for selling it--not just my love of words--to my mom. Saturday afternoons as we'd listen on AM radio to the Bargain Corner--a sort of Craigslist of the air--my mom would drop whatever she was doing to call on our rotary phone about any antiques that seemed advantageously-priced. Many she resold quickly, either from ads in the newspaper or at an occasional flea market booth. One day she brought home a Victrola, to keep.
One day my mom brought a Victrola home.
She didn't know what she was getting herself
into. Courtesy: HartongInternational

Quaintly obsolete, the Victrola came equipped with records. Flipping through the stack of thick 78s, one short number on each side, few piqued the interest of youngsters, until we got to the Okeh Laughing Record.

The Okeh Laughing Record, produced in 1922, features a cornetist wailing a mournful tune. A woman chuckles softly, then louder. The cornetist, struggling to maintain composure, eventually abandons his lament to extravagant laughter. We'd play it when friends visited, laughing together until our sides hurt. Mom hated the record--loathed would not be too strong a word--likening it to an insane asylum.

We've all had favorite childhood belongings simply disappear. Perhaps parents get rid of them on the sly, as I did with my son's little doodad bag. Filled with treasures, Santa gave it to him at a Christmas party. George added to it little by little, until the sides of the felt bag thinned, aburst from the strain. Not only did I weary of the bag's contents strewn throughout the living room, but I flinched as he carried the ratty thing in public, everywhere he went. One day it had an "accident."

I marvel that the Okeh Laughing Record didn't realize a similar fate. But my mom, having a certain respect for anything old, instead of smashing it, simply forbade us listen to it. The Okeh Laughing Record mocked us from inside the storage cabinet, until the Victrola and its accompanying record collection fell victim to our move.

Our little bungalow. We couldn't possibly
fit all my mom's antique furniture into it.
We downsized from a two-story, four-bedroom house to a tiny two-bedroom bungalow. And before we found the two-bedroom, we looked at a handful of used RVs and campgrounds. Not knowing where we'd go or how much space we'd have, little in our house escaped being slapped with a price tag. The day of our big moving sale, my giddiness at conducting the sale tempered any sadness from parting with my belongings. The consummate saleswoman, my mom had eager buyers queued outside our front door well before opening. Vulture-like, they snatched up her antiques and our everyday belongings. I relished assisting her: taking money, answering questions, and, once I grew weary, closing my bedroom door to rest, reflecting that my spoon-carved antique bed had already sold, and this could be the last time I'd use it.

My mom, with a fastidiousness she failed to impart to me, had recorded her furniture purchases in a repurposed address book, noting not only their sale prices, but where she bought them and to whom they were sold. In nearly every case, she profited handily. This was the magic of antiques: not only could she enjoy beauty and superior quality, but having chosen judiciously, she made money when the time came to pass them along.

She still owns the address book. When I stumbled upon it a few years ago, it rekindled memories long dormant: an auction at a country schoolhouse where we played on the ancient seesaw; the friends with whom we abused our piano; my mom loading furniture into the back of our pickup truck to take to the parking lot of the Auction House, knowing, with large for sale signs attached and the right demographic sharing the lot, the truck would return home empty, without the furniture ever suffering the indignity of the auction block. My mom is creative--creative and bold in a way that at once humiliated her children while garnering amazement and pride at her resourcefulness.

I never needed the old address book to remember the Okeh Laughing Record, though. As soon as my brother and I could visit antiques shops on our own, we'd thumb through stacks of old 78s, hoping to find another. We never did.

When I see a Tupperware Fix'N'Mix bowl, I think of the Spelling Bee.
Two years after our big move, I entered the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. I excelled, winning my classroom contest, followed by my school's, then the regional Bee. I learned every word in the book, practicing until it seemed impossible to err. My mom cut the book into strips, paper linguine for the giant yellow Tupperware Fix 'N' Mix bowl. We'd sit on her bed evenings; she'd read a word and its definition from the bowl, I'd spell it.

On the big night of the contest that would determine who'd compete in the nation's capital, the reader mispronounced a word, making its first two syllables identical to the next entry alphabetically on the list. I began to spell the wrong word, realizing my error too late. Instead of first place and a trip to DC, I settled for third, winning a dictionary and a savings bond. The rules state that the speller may ask the word reader to give a definition. Had I done so, I wouldn't have flubbed--at least not until they moved from the official word list to the dictionary. I knew the definitions as well as I knew the spellings.
Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt, the comedians
responsible for the Okeh Laughing Record.
Courtesy: Landesarchiv Baden-Wurttemberg.

I've had plenty of time to forget the words; few truly proved useful.Cachinnate, though, stands as a notable exception. When I learned its meaning, "to laugh raucously," I immediately recalled the Okeh Laughing Record, ruing that I didn't own the word while we still owned the album.

A few years ago, at my sister's New Year's Eve party, we reminisced about the record. Ironically, I couldn't recall its spelling--Okey? Okee? O'Keefe?--but that didn't stop me from tripping downstairs to google it. My joy at finding the recording on YouTube--eclipsed only by the shared glee of hearing it with nieces and nephew--was quashed once again, as the very matriarch who bought the record to begin with, who taught me the word cachinnate from yellow Tupperware, resumed her decades-old protest that it sounded like an insane asylum.

I might wonder about anyone who can listen to the Okeh Laughing Record with a straight face. But even if she was a killjoy when it came to our favorite record, my mom showed us her love in myriad ways--not least, helping with Spelling Bee words night after night after night, so I hardly begrudge her refusal to cachinnate with us. Since my autistic son, too, maintained a stoic face when I played it for him, it's fortunate love transcends laughter.
A family Bible, in my shop, Laura's Last Ditch.

I hope, if George knows what happened to his little doodad bag, that he'll forgive me, too, for killing his joy; sometimes a mother's fragile sanity trumps a child's fancy. And I hope, as I sit next to him on his bed, reading his bedtime stories and his NIV Bible--devoid as it is of the KJV's poetry and delightful turns of phrase--that he knows that not only does God love him, but I love him, just as my mom loved me--despite the times I drove her crazy. I hope he knows, even though his language skills are years behind, his reading rudimentary, his spelling skills practically non-existent, and I'll never shepherd him through a Spelling Bee, that love transcends both laughter and language.

And love never fails--even if your loved ones fail to laugh.


Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. I Corinthians 13:8 (King James Version)

6 comments:

  1. I have to admit, I'm with your mother on this one. But I, too have goofy records that I love from my childhood. Probably no one else would find them amusing. "Real Gone Galoot" by Yorgi Yorgesson from 1950. I think our childhood "funnies" stay with us.

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  2. It probably helped that we learned to love this as children. I listened again, and it brought me back to my childhood, listening to this record in our living room. Several times I had to laugh along! Thank you for the wonderful memories!

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  3. Hi Laura, I'm not sure if I've ever heard that record played or if I have simply blocked it out of my mind in order to maintain my sanity, however, as always I have ENJOYED reading your latest blog! Laura, you SHOULD write a book, it would surely be a Best Seller!!!

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  4. Beautifukky written and artfully woven, Laura!

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  5. I enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of laughing for absolutely no reason at all with my best friend, busy parents wondering what our problem was. I love your new bungalow home.

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  6. I love your blog, have been a follower for a while now. You have been awarded the Liebster!

    The Liebster Blog Award is a way to get traffic to blogs that aren't widely known. The rules:

    Thank the person who nominated you and link back to them.
    List your top five picks (who have less than 200 followers) and link to them, telling a bit about each one. Leave a comment on their blogs to let them know you've nominated them.
    Copy and paste the award on your blog (you can find the award on my blog to copy)
    Have faith that your followers will do the same to other bloggers.

    Thanks for having such a great blog - from one frugal woman to another!

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