Like so many of my generation, I grew up listening to my elders at the kitchen table. Melmac coffee cups and chromed percolator sat beside ashtrays whose blue-plumed spectres of Pall Malls and Terytons swirled to the ceiling. These ritual items of adult conversation would litter the tabletop while my parents, along with occasional drop-in relatives and friends, discussed the day to day business of life.
There was nowhere else in the house suitable for such discourse. Not in the living room with its comfortable couch and chair, certainly not on the porch where the milkman left his glass bottles each day. Such conversation could only occur around a kitchen table – a habit harkening back to the days when the hearth was the center of all activity. I’d sit there too, either on some aunt or uncle’s lap carefully playing with closed matchbooks whose covers had drawings of gemstones or harness racing track days, or I’d be quietly drawing amid the jungle of calves somewhere on the floor. I remember the smoky air didn’t sting your eyes down there. I have no recollection of ever being shooed away.
My values, political views, and general outlook as an adult came from these social gatherings. I remember my uncle and my father sketching out plans for bunk beds during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as if staying in the basement would keep you safe in a prime-target city. I recall political topics after two Kennedys were killed. I remember Chicago riots during the Democratic Convention and after Martin Luther King was murdered. Thinking on some of these moments now, I realize the words themselves didn’t worry me as a child. The emotion of the people speaking them did.
Words have power. This is why they have the ability to soothe or stimulate, to conjure and encourage, to maim and destroy. Words should always be chosen carefully.
I came across a book of speeches recently. These carefully chosen words are considered to have changed the course of history. In fact the title of the book is Speeches That Changed the World by Simon Sebag Monteffiore. There are 224 pages of powerful words, not all of them coming from rational or kind minds but powerful nonetheless. On this side of events, I think they’re worth a peek, if for no other reason to get a glimpse inside the speaker’s minds.
I think today I shall focus on finishing my next novel. Inspired by great words, perhaps I’ll write a few of my own.