A Purpose of Words

Amy had just turned thirteen when she set about shooting herself. That vulnerable moment hadn’t crossed her mind in years – in decades – but now it came back to her vividly. Blame the blues, she thought. One of Mother’s favorite phrases.

She could not, more than seven decades later, recall exactly what triggered that juvenile impulse. She’d not only been months younger than most classmates, but also was “developing more slowly,” as Mother had put it. Perhaps it had been prompted by losing Miss Kelly, the homeroom teacher who’d made her a pet but retired to marry, replaced by a terrible crab. The older girls picking at Amy were emboldened when she had no protectress. She’d felt lonely, isolated, with no real friends to talk with.

Such trivial problems, when viewed from the vantage point of an 86-year-old! Yet talk mattered. Mattered then; still mattered.

Memory summoned up details: Alone at home, she’d gone to Daddy’s huge oaken desk, and taken out the revolver that she’d one day discovered at the back of his top right-hand drawer. It was unloaded, but a box of shells was right there; she loaded all six chambers, releasing an acrid, metallic pungency. Six? Any more than one would be redundant – the word, then just learned at school, flashed brightly now – but she left the gun fully loaded and took out Daddy’s yellow lined notepad and his old-fashioned ink fountain pen, big and fat in her hand.

She could not now remember any of the words, but it surely had turned into a dramatic farewell letter. Imagining how Mom and Dad would feel when they found her had brought tears to her eyes. Other people would mourn her too, people she cared about. She’d begun thinking of events and people she would miss. She could taste now her teen-age remorse at the prospect of such losses and grief.

Finally, she’d tried to imagine how it would feel to put a bullet in her head. Frightened, she’d decided not to do it, at least not just then. She carefully unloaded the gun – again releasing a caustic scent that made her suddenly afraid it might go off – and put everything back in the drawer. She tore her farewell note off Daddy’s pad, folding it up and taking it back to her room.

There she had opened and re-read it, decided it was melodramatic and a thoroughly bad idea, and had torn it into tiny pieces flushed down the toilet a bit at a time, repeatedly pulling the handle to be sure it wouldn’t clog the toilet and betray her.


A good retreat, Amy thought now. “It’s been a good life,” she said aloud, “a wonderful life, in fact.” She let those affirming words resonate in her little apartment, filling the hush; then added, still aloud, with slow deliberation, “until recently.”

She was seated in her very comfortable swivel chair, upholstered with a daisy print, facing out the glass door to her little second-floor porch and beyond it the courtyard that Harmony Acres kept handsomely landscaped. It was late October, an overcast day, so probably chilly out there. Her apartment was warm, though, and faintly redolent of the chrysanthemums she’d brought in from her little garden. Their slightly musty aroma reinforced her mood.

Outdoors, the trees and shrubs had either lost their leaves or were clinging to foliage now faded from autumnal colors to dull brown. She held her breath, listening, thinking she might hear those few leaf-ghosts rustle in a light breeze. No, the stout door admitted no sound.

She swiveled to look into the sitting room and the family photos that dominated the far wall. Dear Harold had been a good husband, a wonderful lover and father, generous in sharing family chores to enable her professorial career. His photo, in color that must have been expensive back then, had caught him in the handsome blond fullness of young fatherhood, with long sideburns and a Clark Gable moustache.

Having ungrudgingly nursed him through the final painful months fifteen years ago, she missed him still, especially at moments like this. He had always been deft at tenderly coaxing her out of glum moods; he erased the silence by talking to her until, at last, he could talk with her.

Sarah, their older daughter, was a wonderful first child, fun to be with throughout her growing-up, although the photo Amy had chosen for that wall was in full regalia for her Ph.D. investiture. Sarah had by then already begun a diplomatic career that made her now a very important person in the embassy in Canberra, of all places.

Australia was so far away, on the other side of the world, that timing of phone calls was difficult. They didn’t happen as often as Amy would like; mostly, the phone beside her might as well be a mute paperweight.

For a transient moment, she wished that she might visit Australia. But no, she was much too frail even to consider that. She and Harold had been irrepressible, adventurous travelers, but that was long ago, far behind, rear-view memories. She now needed a walker to go anywhere; inside the apartment she tottered dangerously between rooms.

And the younger one, Caroline, was up in Alaska. That photo was one that she’d sent, with the majestic Mount McKinley – no, they called it Denali now, demoting the poor president – over her shoulder. Caroline seemed almost as far away as Sarah, four time zones, doing something important to save the environment. Scheduling phone calls with her should have been easier, but somehow that didn’t happen very often either.

She glanced over her shoulder at the National Parks calendar Caroline had sent to her every Christmas, and counted on her fingers. She hadn’t seen either of the girls, up close and personal, in more than two years. Almost three. She blinked sternly to suppress a tear of self-pity; stop that, Amy!

But what awful years. The years of the pandemic, although Amy thought she’d weathered them well. In the first weeks, everyone had been absolute prisoners in their apartments, ordering meals by marking up paper menus or by computer, having them delivered to hallway shelves by some wraith from the culinary department who rang the doorbell and was far down the hall before one got to the door, so might as well have been a voiceless robot, a wordless automaton.

That demanding regimen gave way, once everyone had been vaccinated, to less stringent cloistering: masks and endless handwashing, takeout meals picked up in person – but only a few people at a time, studiously separated. The twice-weekly movies resumed, though with such severe spacing that only the first few dozen to sign up could attend, too far apart from one another to exchange sotto voce comment on the films. Wordless companionship was meager comfort.

Those who were young enough to manage computers – Amy counted herself lucky to have begun under Harold’s tutelage and so be among the digital cognoscenti – learned how to Zoom. At least some of their committees and social activities crept back into their lives. Yet images on a screen were poor substitutes for sitting together, and the technology made them speak one at a time. There was no babble of friendly voices.

She especially missed the afternoon teatime that had not yet resumed; there was no gossip in her life.


She had moved to Harmony Acres soon after Harold’s death, and in all those years had chaired or at least served purposefully on every committee in the Residents Association, from library to hospitality to flowers and decorations. She kept up with some of them nowadays by Zoom attendance, but in a desultory way; younger arrivals had taken up the burden.

In those early years she’d been not only busy and useful, but also had made a dozen or so good friends, mostly women but some men, too. She’d happily adopted a convivial mealtime habit, a constantly-shifting congeries of four or six for dinner and conversation in Harmony Acres’ handsome white-tablecloth dining room, almost like a good restaurant.

The isolation of the plague wasn’t the worst of it: She was outliving her best friends. She let a few names march single-file through her mind. Nancy. Helen. Carolyn. Sarah. She halted the parade; the recitation brought a lump to her throat..

A poem from the college course she’d taught in 16th century literature popped into her head. Goodness! For a useless old lady, her brain was unusually busy today! “A cumberworld, yet in the world am left/ A fruitless plot, with brambles overgrown.”

Overgrown indeed. Stuck here, purposeless. A cumberworld. She an encumbrance.

For a time, she’d entertained the idea of a second marriage. Her loyalty to Harold – and her sense that her aging body wasn’t up to amorous calisthenics – persuaded her that casual palaver and occasional mild flirtation were sufficient exposure to the opposite sex.

And they kept dying off! More names paraded. Morris, close to her age and sharing a love of words and literature, went five years ago, of cardiac arrest. He at least avoided a protracted demise. Harriet was moved to assisted living four years ago; Amy visited her once a week, but Harriet was so taciturn now that Amy found it depressing. At about that time, Mabel was moved to the section called, with an irony few seemed to notice, The Memory Place. Amy had visited her, too, until Mabel reached the nadir of not remembering who her visitors were.


The hard fact: She had few close friends left, had little to offer in committees or even in gathered dialogue, and was generally useless. Otiose. Goodness, how did these words keep popping into her head? Teaching English lit must have conditioned her aging cranium to keep percolating. She was still never at a loss for words.

“Words to myself are pointless!” She startled herself by saying it aloud, then continued aloud: “Useless. I’m useless. The time has come.” The words rattled around her sitting-room.

Not by pistol, though. Her wakened memory of that teen-age attempt left her skeptical she could carry it off. Besides, Harmony Acres’ abstemiousness was enforced by the contract they signed on arrival: No tobacco, no stimulant drugs, no firearms. No Daddy’s desk drawer.

How then? She might stumble and fall – a danger she increasingly feared – or even tip herself headfirst over the rail of that little porch. She swiveled again to look out the glass door. Could she manage it? Daylight was waning; with careful timing she might not be found until morning. But suppose she did not harm herself sufficiently? Not die? Or die slowly in the dark cold, suffused with pain? I am not a brave person.

An older friend, years ago, had stopped eating and drinking. After announcing her intention, she’d invited friends to come visit in the few days that she remained vibrant and conscious. A few days less if one abjures liquids as well as nutrition, she’d told visitors; the real discomfort lasts only a day or two. Must Google that promising model.

The phone at her elbow rang.

Lightning out of a clear sky: She was taken aback. It rang and rang. At last she picked it up with a measured response: “Hello? This is Amy.”

“Amy! Thank goodness you’re there! It’s Mildred.”

Mildred, one of her few remaining old friends. “Hello, dear! How are you this gray evening?”

“Terrible! That’s why I’m calling. My arthritis is fierce, I can’t think straight, and I’m afraid of living.”

A fellow sufferer! But I mustn’t voice that identity. “I’m sorry to hear that, dear. How can I help?”

“Amy, might you come read to me?”

“Read to you? I’m not . . . .”

“Remember last spring when I thought I might have the COVID thing, and you bravely came to comfort me by reading from a book you’d taught? Shakespeare, I think.”

“Oh yes, I remember now. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wasn’t it?”

“Exactly! You read so well, and it was so calming! I hate to be a burden, but might you come read to me again?”

Imagine! Purpose! She would read a passage and they’d talk about it. Talk! Two old crones playing at college classroom. I can be useful! “Of course, dear Mildred, I’d be glad to help. Set your hallway door ajar, and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Bless you, friend. I can’t wait!”

Amy hung the phone up gently, got up and went to the bookshelf, studying the titled spines.

Romeo and Juliet? No. That moment had passed. Hamlet? No, too grim.

Midsummer Night’s again; good old Puck! Purposeful Puck.

It was good to be purposeful.



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