Why My Aunt Josie Has a Limited Vocabulary

As long as I can remember, Aunt Josie has spoken very little and has a very limited vocabulary.  An exchange with Aunt Josie (which always has to be initiated by someone else) might go like this:

“It’s hot out there today, Josie.”  This might be my father talking to his sister.  It’s not a question so she would not respond.  He’d try again.

“It’s hot, Josie.  Would you like some lemonade?”

“No thanks.”  To such a direct question, Josie would respond politely but minimally.  That would be the end of the conversation.

When I say that Josie has a limited vocabulary, I don’t mean that she doesn’t know a lot of words; I never said anything to Aunt Josie that she did not seem to comprehend.  But she uses few words and uses those few sparsely.  While I was growing up, I thought my aunt was both wise and tolerant.  While most adults spent their energy yelling at me or trying to convince me to do things their way, Aunt Josie never said a word.  I learned something from that; something that I think a lot about now that I have a child of my own.

In fact, people who encountered Josie either thought she was one of the wisest people they had ever met or that she was mentally deficient.  But when they talked to my mother about it, she would set them straight.

“She just decided that there was not much value in talking,” she would say, and refuse to elaborate.

Aunt Josie lived with us all the time I was growing up.  She was a quiet and constant presence in the house, sharing her paisley overstuffed chair by the window with Bugs, our cat, who liked to sit on the back of it to watch the birds.  She favored denim jumpers, worn over turtlenecks in the winter and tee shirts in the summer.  She wore her hair pulled back low on her neck and secured by a tortoise shell barrette.  As I said, Aunt Josie seldom spoke, but the click-click of her wooden knitting needles provided a quiet percussive bassline for our otherwise noisy treble-clef household.  Years later, I visited a convent of grey nuns, and the clicks of their rosaries brought me right back to the sound of Aunt Josie making hats and mittens and carpet slippers.

 As far as I know, my aunt isn’t at all religious.  On Sunday mornings, we all used to vacate the house for eight o’clock Mass and breakfast afterwards, but Aunt Josie stayed home to start the roast for our big meal in the afternoon.

Still alive, Aunt Josie appears the same to me as she did almost forty years ago.  I know that can’t be true, but it surely seems like it.  I would swear that she even wears the same silver wire rim glasses.  Her soft brown hair turned white, but the tortoise shell barrette is still there.  Of course, the original Bugs is long buried in the backyard, but the current feline sharing her chair is another in the line of tuxedo cats named Bugs (regardless of gender) that love to watch the birds.

My parents are both long gone. They stayed married and they never stopped bickering.  It got worse if anything; I think they wore each other out. Quiet Aunt Josie lives alone in the old Victorian house on Fenton Street now.  She is the only one of my original family left.  I have tried to keep in contact with her by phone, but she doesn’t talk any more on the phone than she does in person, and, besides, her hearing is starting to go.  Even though she never asks you to repeat yourself, you somehow can’t help endlessly echoing the few things you had to say in the face of her serene silence.

When I went back with my wife and toddler to spend Christmas with her last year, Aunt Josie seemed deeply appreciative.  It was then, after imbibing on more than my usual two fingers of Scotch, that I asked her to tell me why she decided not to talk much.  This is the story she told me.  Mind you, it was hard for her.  I’ve had to embellish a little, because Aunt Josie used so few words that it would only be a paragraph or two.

First, she insisted that it started with me.  “You were a baby,” Aunt Josie said slowly.   I immediately wished I had never asked if I was going to get the blame.

It turned out, though, that when I was somewhat older than one and less than three, she cared for me for a portion of every day, while my mother shopped or played bridge.  She was taken by how I learned to talk.

Apparently up was an important word at that point in my life.  Aunt Josie came to realize that I could get a lot of mileage out of that one word.  I have a small child now and this is certainly true.  Arms outstretched and up can mean “hug me,” “I want attention,” “get me to the place where Bugs is,” “I don’t want to walk anymore,” or “I want to see what’s going on over the heads of all these big people.”  For a two-year old, up is an important word indeed.

Aunt Josie also learned the power of yes and no from my younger selfToddlers have no need of further explanations.  If little guys don’t want broccoli or to go to bed, they don’t give reasons.   If you ask again, they will just repeat the same word, maybe louder as if perhaps you didn’t hear it the first time.  It is refreshing in a way, I suppose.  Adults go on and on justifying and apologizing, and most of what follows after the initial “yes” or “no” is probably a lie anyway.  I know just what Aunt Josie meant. 

I had no trouble following Josie about toddlers, but then she moved on to dying people.

“Teddy’s stroke.”  Josie said this slowly and then came to a dead stop.  Uncle Teddy was my grandfather’s brother and he lived next door to us on the second floor of a tenement owned by my father.  Josie originally lived on the first floor, but was displaced by Teddy’s son and his wife, who were having an untimely baby and needed a place to live.  I learned this from overhearing adult conversations over the years and not from Josie.

Since there was no one else available and since the family finances would not accommodate full time nurses and the family’s conscience would not put Teddy in a state-subsidized nursing home, Aunt Josie spent her time moving between the two households.

“Teddy couldn’t talk.”  Teddy was aphasic for the year or so he lived after the first stroke.  He apparently got well enough to use some language and Josie was again impressed by how few words Teddy needed to get his point across.  Josie told me that his vocabulary was limited to yes, no, hot, cold, tea, ice cream, pudding (which mean any kind of food other than ice cream), new (which meant the newspaper which he liked to look at though he had trouble reading),  poo (which meant either his diaper was soiled or he wanted to try and use the bathroom or bedpan) and go (which meant go away and leave him  alone.

So, for over a year, Josie spent her time with a toddler, whose vocabulary was limited but expanding, and an old man, whose lost vocabulary had seemingly reached the limit of his recall.  Meanwhile, she was also living a household where the two adults (my parents) bickered endlessly.  They were still bickering when I was old enough to understand what was going on. 

“Do you want to go to the Smith’s to play bridge tonight?” My mother would start.  “They invited us.” 

“Not particularly.  But if you want to go…”

“Well, what particularly would you like to do?  Sit around and drink beer and watch Jackie Gleason re-runs?” 

“Beats watching soap operas and drinking so much soda that you’re up all night running to the bathroom…” 

And so it would go.  Pretty soon they would be criticizing each other’s relatives and talking about who spent too much money and who didn’t earn enough.  When I was a kid, I went to my room and closed the door.  When I was old enough, I left.  But during the period that Aunt Josie was talking about, she would go next door to sit with Uncle Teddy and sometimes she would take me with her.  I have a vague recollection of watching a black and white television in my uncle’s living room and playing with a collection of dice of various colors that were kept in a bowl on the coffee table.  

I imagine that by the time Aunt Josie and I got home, the fight had gone out of my parents, and we could all go to bed.

Aunt Josie tried to tell me all this in very few words.  I didn’t think she was holding out on me, but years and years of a limited vocabulary had  become a habit.  When she even used the word “quiet,” I think she surprised herself.  And then she used the word “unnecessary,” and I was surprised.

“No good from unnecessary talking.”

Aunt Josie didn’t quite say so, but she implied that as my childhood vocabulary expanded, I was less pleasurable to be around and that was probably the truth.  I was an argumentative kid; my father used to call me a “Philadelphia lawyer,” just before he told me to shut up.

Now, I have been filling in the blanks.  My actual conversation with Aunt Jose went something like this:

Me:  “When did you stop talking so much?”

Josie:  “You were baby.  Yes, no, up.”

Me:  “So you were trying to talk like me?”

Josie:  “You were trying to talk like me.”  I might say that this sounds like echolalia, where someone who has trouble speaking repeats what you say.  But I think my aunt meant that I was trying to speak like the adults around me, while she realized I had sufficient words already.  Anyway, I asked her if that is what she meant, and this is how she answered.

Josie:  “And Uncle Teddy.  Stroke.  Said enough.”

Me:  “Uncle Teddy could communicate enough with a few words.  Is that what you are saying?”

Josie:  “Yes.  Yes. No.  Hot. Cold.  Tea.  TV.  Poo. Pudding.  Go. That was about it. oh, and ice cream.

Me:  “He must have really loved ice cream.”

Josie: “Yes.”

And so it went.  She understood everything I said, and when I embellished it to clarify what I thought she meant, she either nodded or shook her head.  I brought up my parents’ bickering.

Me:  “Do you remember the way my folks used to fight with each other?”

Josie:  “No.”

Me (puzzled):  “You don’t remember?”

Josie:  “Try not to.”

Me:  “Me too.”

You can see that I’ve done some interpreting, but I’m used to Aunt Josie.  If people are not used to her, they usually conclude that she is either extremely wise or that she is mentally defective.  Or deaf.  Wise would be the right choice, but not in the sense that she is holding her own counsel purposefully or even carefully deliberating over what she will say.  She is wise because she does not see the need to muddy things up with words.  When I was trying to fill out the little she said with words, she actually looked at me like she felt sorry for me.

There are not many histories of silent people – what could you record if they did not say anything?  There are two silent Zechariahs in the Bible, one in the Old Testament and one in the New.  They are obviously different people; the first is a prophet and the second is the great-uncle (in-law) of Jesus.  The first says “Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord.”  The New Testament guy is told by an angel that he  “shalt be dumb, and not able to speak,” until he was fulfilled that he would become a father in his old age – father of John the Baptist that is.   And so it was.  And when Jesus would not speak at all in front of Pontius Pilate, Pilate was amazed.  He “marveled” at the silence.  And then there is Philomela in Ovid who is raped by her brother-in-law who also cuts out her tongue so she can’t tell anyone.  (She gets turned into a nightingale in the end.)  And, of course, there is the Little Mermaid who sells her voice for a pair of legs.  Aunt Josie did not get anything for the diminishment of her voice except, perhaps, some peace.  Because, after all, it is hard to keep arguing with someone who does not contribute to the conversation.

At first my wife was unnerved by visiting someone who hardly spoke.  But she got used to it, and with no danger of verbal criticism, she soon relaxed.  My toddler, little Joey, loved Aunt Josie and Bugs.   My aunt stayed in her chair, and Joey used it as home base as he explored a new place and tried fruitlessly to coax Bugs down to his level.  And Aunt Josie loved Joey too.  They used about the same number of words, so understood each other perfectly.

Since we came home after the holidays, I have cut down on talking myself and here’s the interesting thing – if I stop saying things I don’t need to say, days go smoother.  I even worry about things less – my brain seems to be taking a cue from the vocal cords and is stopping the chatter.  Less noise.  Sometimes my wife asks me if I’m mad at her, but I assure her I’m not and that is the truth.  At first, she filled in the gaps by making conversation for hours on end, but she has stopped that.  Often the one doing the most talking in the house is Joey.

I hope that Josie never ends up in a nursing home.  They will be sure that there is something wrong with her because she doesn’t talk, and that is the opposite of the truth. 

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