Ponderings from a Procrastinating Prognosticator

Archive for the ‘Writing – Non-fiction’ Category


Posted by samatwitch on May 15, 2012

Yesterday was Mother’s Day – at least in North America.  Twenty-five years ago, I was sharing a ‘picnic’ supper of bread, meat, cheese and fresh strawberries with my mother, (step)father, sister and the man she married the following weekend, in the rooftop garden of St. Paul’s Hospital.  It was the last food my mother ate as she didn’t want to eat anything and actually only had very tiny amounts that night to please my sister and me.  My mother had leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, to be exact.  As it turns out, the kind of leukemia my father had died from 35 years before was a subset of AML, although there is no way to know for sure if it was the same strain that just lay dormant in my mother for all that time.

When doctors say ‘acute’, they know of which they speak.  It was seven weeks from the day my mother went in the hospital in Duncan and was tentatively diagnosed with a form of chronic leukemia, until she died in St. Paul’s.  I was lucky, I had a little voice that told me it was going to be seven weeks so I sat down and decided on what I needed/wanted to say to her or things I wanted to share, questions I wanted to ask and, most importantly, what needed to be left unsaid and unsolved but let go.

At the time, I was working on an on-call basis and so I was available every day for at least part of the day and for the final four and a half weeks, I slept and mostly lived at the hospital.  The one thing I could do for her was to type (and I mean on an only semi-correcting typewriter) the final draft of the book she had spent the past few years researching and writing about the women who came to the coast of British Columbia as teachers, nurses, missionaries and helpmates to their husbands.  They Also Came is the title and she spent many hours interviewing women or their families about the lives of some of these brave women.  One of her close friends who was included in the book insisted that my mother should also have a chapter as she and Dad plied the waters of the Pacific Northwest on the Thomas Crosby V, the United Church mission boat that visited lighthouses, fishing villages, and isolated people on the coast.

My mother didn’t live to see her book in print but she did know it had gone to the printer.  All the money raised went to the Crosby mission fund to support the ship’s journey up and down the coast.  Right to the end – and beyond – my mother was giving.  She died as she had lived, with dignity and courage and love for her family.

Posted in Personal, Writing - Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »


Posted by samatwitch on December 8, 2011

I wrote this a couple of months after the death of my youngest cat, Miss Molly.  I can’t believe it’s been that long, but then Tija is 16 1/2 now and I acquired her a few months after this.  Miss Molly brought much joy into my life even though she was with us a short time.


On September 16, 1994,  I came home to my apartment after a wonderful warm, sunny day out of town, to discover two messages on my answering machine.  The voice was that of an unfamiliar woman.  In a sympathetic tone, she identified herself and told me she had my cat, it had been hit by a car and she was sorry, but it was dead.  The second message was from the same woman who told me not to worry about how late I got home, but to phone them whatever time it was.  Since my two older cats had greeted me on my arrival, I knew that it was my youngest, two and a half year old Miss Molly – my “wee little Miss Molly” as I often called her – and the tears began to flow.

She wasn’t really that small, she just appeared so.  She was actually taller than her mother Matilda, although slimmer, and bigger than my oldest cat, Samantha.  But there was something about Miss Molly that always made me think of her as “wee”.  Perhaps it was her large green eyes, which made her pointed face appear smaller, or just the fact that she was still very kittenish.  Or maybe it was because she was a gift I had never expected and I still have vivid memories of her as a newborn kitten, especially when she was ten days old and I had to feed her with an eye dropper when Matilda took off for the day.

That was the day Samantha officially met the yet-to-be named kitten.  After 16 years of being the centre of attention in our household, Samantha had not taken kindly to Matilda’s unexpected intrusion into our lives and her subsequent adoption of us.  Consequently, Samantha was noticeably wary of this small black and white wriggling object, no bigger than the length of my hand, yet one whose scent designated her “cat”.

I had had Samantha spayed at six months as I did with Miss Molly, but Matilda was already pregnant when she decided to stay with us.   Miss Molly was the only one of the four kittens to survive and I had decided to keep her.

I called Gayle, the woman who had left the message, and her husband Michael came over immediately, carrying Miss Molly, wrapped in a towel in a square rubber basin.  I stood on the top step of my apartment building, in front of a neighbour I had never met, weeping over the lifeless body of my youngest cat.  It was ten o’clock at night and I didn’t know what to do next.  Michael said my neighbours who lived in the house across the street had offered to help me in the morning with whatever arrangements I wished to make.  He pushed back the towel from Miss Molly’s face, but advised me not to turn her over as the other side of her head and her eye were damaged quite badly.  I thanked him and took her inside.

When I entered the apartment, the other two cats immediately sensed something was wrong.  I put the basin on the floor and let them look at her.  Matilda, who had seen one of her kittens die and the other two disappear (they had to be put to sleep), took one look and sniff and jumped back from the container.  But Samantha kept bending closer, finally reaching out a paw as if to move the too-still body of her young companion.  After all, Miss Molly was hardly ever totally still.  She had a seemingly endless supply of energy, always on the go.  My most often-used expression with regards to her was, “Where did Miss Molly go now?”  Although very affectionate, she did not really liked to be picked up and cuddled, usually squirming free in 30 seconds or less.  However, twice in what turned out to be the last week of her life she had actually jumped up on my legs, while I was reclining on the sofa with Samantha on my shoulder, and stretched out for a long nap.

I phoned long distance to one of my closest friends .  As soon as she heard my voice, she asked what was wrong and was it Samantha?  With Samantha being 19, her death would not have been unexpected.  I explained that it was Miss Molly and my friend sympathized with me over the phone, letting me talk and cry.

After a long night, in which I spent a lot of time just stroking Miss Molly’s face and paw, I realized that her body was now stiff and the essence that had made her my “wee little Miss Molly” had really left.  I held her on my lap in the basin and called the other two to come near.  Samantha sat on the arm of the chair beside me, Matilda on the floor – close, but with her back to us.  I sang – or tried to – a couple of my favourite hymns and said a prayer of thankfulness for the unexpected joy and love Miss Molly had brought to all of us during her young life.  Just as I finished, Theresa phoned from across the street to ask me if I was ready to make a decision about what to do with the body.  She and Maureen drove me to the SPCA where, for $15, they cremated the body.

The next day Theresa and Maureen came over with flowers and a beautiful card to make sure I was okay.  They explained how Michael had found Miss Molly in the middle of the road in front of their house, while walking his dog and, ignoring the blood, picked her up and took her home.  He and his wife, Gayle, had called Theresa and Maureen (who are nurses) to see if they could help, but Maureen assured me that Miss Molly must have died instantly and, thanks to Michael, she was not run over afterwards.  Gayle had stroked Miss Molly into a more natural position and wrapped her in the towel.   I shall always be grateful for having such caring neighbours who made such a difficult and painful situation a little bit easier.

I had three days to grieve before I returned to work, but even there it was made more bearable because of the caring and support shown and expressed by almost every one I work with.  Most have cats of their own or had at one time, and most of them have gone through similar experiences.  And most of them had heard of Miss Molly, while quite a few had seen pictures of her.  Nobody laughed at me for caring so much about a cat or belittled the grief and loss I felt.  I truly feel blessed to have been so fortunate as to have friends, family (my sister and her family in the Kootenays sent me hugs over the phone), neighbours, and co-workers who empathized with me and, for those who knew her, grieved with me.

The pain is not so constant now and I look at the many pictures I have of her.  (She was not only photogenic but seemed to love having her picture taken.)  I think about her high-pitched, and sometimes quite demanding, meow – which sounded much like the woman’s cry in the opening sequence of “Mystery”.  I think about how she tried to effect a fierce growl when she didn’t want anyone near her when she had brought home a mouse, or worse, a bird, but the noise she made was so un-fierce that I was always hard-pressed not to laugh even when I was scolding her.  I think of how I tried to stop her crossing the road but, short of locking her in the apartment all the time, which I was not willing to do, I had to live with the knowledge that she liked to cross not just one, but two busy streets to find a quiet yard where she could relax and run around without fear of being chased herself.  I think of how she would follow me as far as the alley, across the street and half a block from home, when I was on my way to work, and cry so piteously (or so it sounded) that I could hear her over a block away.

I remember how she liked to snuggle under the covers with me, or lie on my arm at night.  I remember the time I woke up and found a small pink nose pressed against mine and two big green eyes staring at me, while a small paw gently batted my face to wake me up.  I remember how she would jump up onto the bathroom counter as soon as I started to brush my teeth and try to get her head between my arm and my face.  There are still tears when I think of Miss Molly and her shortened life, but there are smiles when I remember the joy with which she lived, and I do not, for one moment, regret loving her.

Posted in Personal, Writing - Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »


Posted by samatwitch on December 7, 2011

This is actually an academic paper that I wrote for a third-year English class when I went back to finish my degree a few years ago.  I got 90% on the paper and my professor said the missing 10% was because I had left out a step!  I didn’t include the bibliography/references.

“Words are flashlights upon our thoughts.”  So says Joseph T. Shipley in his introduction to The Origins of English Words.  If this is so, perhaps we can illuminate some of the thoughts of our ancestors by studying the history of our modern words and their meanings, past and present.  Take a word like heart, for instance.  We are aware of some of the associated words, which have “heart” as the root, and most people know the connection with the Greek word for heart, kard-ia, but there are other words which are not so recognizable as being related.  Some of these are from the Latin root cor, or cordis and are less easy to identify as being from the same family.

All of these words come from the Indo-European root *ker-dhe.  Latin and Greek kept the initial voiceless stop,│ k│, while Germanic languages moved the voiceless stop to a voiceless fricative, thus │ h│.  The IE aspirated voiceless stop ‘dh’ became a voiced stop│ d│ for all these languages, but Germanic went one step further, changing the voiced stop│ d│ to a voiceless stop│ t│.  These Germanic changes are part of what is known as Grimm’s Law.

The word heart itself has undergone numerous changes in spelling, not just from the Indo-European to Latin to West Germanic to English, but from Old English to Modern English.  From the eleventh to thirteenth century, the word was usually spelled heorte, as it appears in Lamb’s Homer in 1175: “we sulen habben ure heorte and habben godne ileafe to ure drighten.”  The spelling changed to herte sometime in the thirteenth century, appearing also as harte from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth.  The latter was probably a result of the early modern English sound change from ‘e + r + 1 consonant’ to a sound, and sometimes spelling, change to ‘a + r + 1 consonant’. From the fourteenth to seventeenth century, the word was also spelled without the final “e”, which was, by this time period, silent; but from the sixteenth century onwards, the word can be found in the form we use now, heart.  As late as the seventeenth century, however, the word appeared in Scotland spelled hairt.

Heart has many meanings today, including a reference to a “heart” shape or referring to the physical organ, but the most common uses of the word still seem to revolve around feeling and emotion.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as one of the archaic or even obsolete definitions:  “Considered as the centre of vital functions: the seat of life, the vital part or principle; hence in some phrases = life”.
Perhaps our modern generation would find that to be out-dated, but the standard definitions are very similar:
1.    As the seat of feeling, understanding and thought.
2.    The seat of one’s inmost thoughts and secret feelings; one’s inmost being, the depths of the soul; the soul; the spirit.
3.    The seat of emotions generally; the emotional nature, as distinguished from the intellectual nature placed in the head.
4.    More particularly, the seat of love or affection.
5.    The seat of courage; hence, courage, spirit.
6.    The source of ardour, enthusiasm or energy.
7.    The moral sense, conscience.
8.    The innermost or central part of anything; the centre, middle.
Oxford English Dictionary, 1989

This last definition is particularly interesting, as it seems to relate to our word core, meaning essentially the same thing – the centre, middle, or innermost part.  It is suggested in one etymological dictionary that it probably comes from the same Latin cor.  This seems to be substantiated by the fact that several other Indo-European languages have cognates with this Latin word, which indicate a connection between their words for “middle” and “heart”.  In some cases, the word is the same, while in others, the two words thus defined are very similar.

We may not equate the heart with life, but we certainly seem to imbue it with everything that makes life worth living; our emotions, spirits, even our souls.  Perhaps that is why we adopted the Greek cognate kard-  to describe the biological and medical object that is our physical heart.  Thus we have cardiology, “pertaining to the heart, anatomically, physiologically, or pathologically” (OED, 1989), and its family of derivatives, cardiac (arrest); electrocardiogram, etc.  Another definition of cardiac is “pertaining to or affected with disease of the heart” (OED, 1989).  Contrast this with the above definitions and notice the heart is always referred to in positive statements.

Certainly, some of the compound words we have made using heart are negative, such as heartache or heartbroken, but the meaning of the root remains the same.  That especially holds true in the case of words such as hearty or heartily.  Both these words denote strength and kindly feelings in large doses.  The exception to this is dishearten, which includes the Latin prefix dis-, meaning negation, separation, apart or away from.  Whereas hearty and heartily are ways of expressing what is in one’s heart, dishearten denotes something that is done to one, depriving of “heart”, making despondent, as illustrated by this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “No man should possesse him with any appearance of feare, lest hee, by shewing it, should dishearten his Army”.

Although we use the Germanic root, heart, for countless compound words or phrases to explain our feelings, and the Greek root for the biological descriptions, we use the Latin cognate, cor, as the basis for many other words which describe both feelings and manner, as well as the state between two or more people or things.

Our word cordate, meaning “heart-shaped”, comes from the Latin word cordātus, meaning wise or prudent.  A word that is in much more common use, however, is cordial, meaning “of or belonging to the heart; of the heart as the seat of feeling, affection, etc.; warm and friendly in manner” (OED, 1989).  This word is often used as a synonym for hearty, and comes from cordate plus the suffix -ial.  Like heartily, cordially can also be used in a negative sense, thus “I dislike him cordially (or heartily)” meaning with strong emotion.  The word cordial, used as a noun, refers to a sweet beverage, often with some alcoholic content, but it is a beverage which “invigorates the heart and stimulates the circulation” (OED, 1989).
Another, less often used word, is misericordia, which sounds like it should denote negative feelings, but actually means to have compassion or mercy, coming from the Latin miser (wretched) and cor (heart).

Many of the words based on the Latin cor, like misericordia, actually come to us via the French, rather than directly from Latin.  Such a word is courage.  Coming over from central France in the 14th century with the second wave of French influence on the English language, the word was then more frequently spelled corage in both France and England.  Our most common modern meaning for courage is “That quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking; bravery, boldness, valour” (OED, 1989).  But when we look back further, we find a now-obsolete meaning which links the relationship to its Latin root: “The heart as the seat of feeling, thought, etc.; spirit, mind, disposition, nature” (OED, 1989).  Compare that to definition #2 above, and one can see that at some point in our past, the words heart and courage must have been almost interchangeable.  Now we seem to have separated these words into two different meanings but, looking at definition #5, we still see courage as coming from the heart.

In the fifteenth century, the French gave us two other words connected with courage, which we have brought into common usage.  These are encourage and discourage.  Again, though they came into English from France, both the root and the prefixes are from Latin.  En- means ‘at or near’ and therefore the literal meaning of the word is to bring courage to someone else;  “to inspire with courage, animate, inspirit” (OED, 1989).  We use it in a much looser sense today, bringing hope or even renewed energy to another.

Discourage, of course, means the opposite: “To deprive of courage, confidence or moral energy; to lessen the courage of; to dishearten, dispirit…” (OED, 1989).  It is interesting to note that, although heart and courage no longer are synonyms, dishearten and discourage still are.

To me, the most fascinating group of words to come into the English language from the Latin cor or cordis also came via the French, starting to appear in Middle English in the 13th century.  These words – accord, concord, discord, record, and chord – have more in common than their spelling and their common origins.

The first three words are easily seen to be related.  Indeed, accord and concord can be used as synonyms, although accord is in more common usage.  In Old French and early Modern English, accord was spelled with only one “c”, but by the fifteenth century the spelling became consistent with the Latin accordā-re.  The ac- prefix was the same as an ad- prefix, meaning “to”, giving rise to the literal meaning of accord as bringing heart to heart, thus reconciling oneself or others, or agreeing.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives several meanings, among them “reconciliation, agreement, harmony, concurrence of opinion, will or action, consent” (OED, 1989).  The definition for concord is very similar: “Agreement between persons; concurrence in feeling or opinion; harmony, accord” (OED, 1989).  The prefix con-, meaning with, thus leads to the literal meaning of ‘hearts agreeing’.  Concord gives rise to a further word, concordance, for which one meaning is “The fact of agreeing or being concordant; agreement or harmony” (OED, 1989).  It follows, then that discord is the lack of agreement or harmony, specifically between persons.

The verb record takes a bit more thought to see why it belongs with this family. The prefix re-, meaning back, added to cord, gives us ‘bringing back to mind or heart’, i.e. to remember, or to learn by heart.  Record as a noun, however, is an English word which the French have taken back as a loan word! (Klein, 1967).

There does not seem to be a clear consensus with regard to the etymology of the word chord.  Klein states that it is an abbreviation of accord, the difference in spelling a result of confusion with the word chord which means the ‘string of an instrument’.  Partridge, on the other hand, does not really offer an opinion about where it comes from.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary offers these two current meanings:
1.    A combination of two “according” or harmonious notes sounded together, a concord.
2.    A combination, concordant or discordant, of 3 or more simultaneous notes according to the rules of harmony; rarely of two notes only.
(OED, 1989)
From this definition, it is hard to believe the words are not related, since every word in the group is defined in some way by using the word ‘harmony’.

More evidence for this etymology can be found in the obsolete definitions of this group of words.  Accord once meant “to compose, sing or play (something) in harmony…”, and  record  “to sing of or about (something); to render in song”.  Musically, concord still can be defined as “[a] combination of notes which is in itself satisfactory to the ear, requiring no resolution or following chord”, while discord, as one would expect, means the opposite: “Disagreement or want of harmony between 2 or more musical notes sounded together; dissonance”.  And an obsolete meaning of chord was “Agreement of musical sounds” (OED, 1989).

In the late seventeenth century, William Cowper, in “The Task”, wrote “…Some chord in unison with what we hear Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies”.  Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, on the other side of the ocean, Edgar Allan Poe expressed similar thoughts: “There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which can not be touched without emotion” (The Masque of the Red Death).

In the late 1800’s, Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, in the anguish of dealing with his brother’s death, put music to words written by Adelaide Anne Procter.  The beautiful song which resulted, “The Lost Chord”, epitomizes music, both words and notes, which comes from the heart.  Proctor refers to the chord as “[seeming to be] the harmonious echo From our discordant life”, which “came from the soul of the organ, And enter’d into mine”.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary does not mention music directly with regards to heart, a definition which includes “the depths of the soul” seems to indicate a connection.  Where else would the world’s greatest music come from, if not the composer’s heart?


Posted in Writing - Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »