A FAMILY DICTIONARY*
Selected Definitions, with Annotations
* Every family, though it may appear to speak the language common to the culture in which it resides, develops an idiosyncratic vernacular of its own.
Stuffy (adj) Definition 1. describing an atmosphere that lacks the free flow of air; stagnant. May be marked by an odor, usually of unknowable origin. Implies the presence of germs. May be dangerous to the sustaining of life; uninhabitable.
The father could deem an environment “stuffy” as the result of any variety of causes: an irritant or vapor in the air: mold, mildew, lingering cigarette smoke in a carpet or drape, cooking odors in a kitchen, or in the absence of any aural indications, even by visual cues: the absence of sunlight in a narrow hallway, a window that appeared to be sealed shut; the fading of an antique rug that suggested the passage of time, the presence of dust. Stuffiness was not just an aural phenomenon; it affected all of the senses and, even beyond its sensory impact, could produce more generalized effects.
Hotel and motel rooms had a propensity for stuffiness, as did other people’s houses, particularly houses in which older people, particularly sickly older people, resided. A house in which someone had died, even if well-ventilated, would retain its intrinsic stuffiness for an indeterminate period of time. Movie theatres, though among the father’s most highly frequented venues (if left to his own devices, he could sit through two double-bills in a day, or watch the same movie twice, with brand new popcorn and Jujubes for the second showing), were notorious for their stuffiness.
It was important to diagnose stuffiness in an environment as quickly and efficiently as possible. Otherwise, one might commit to it and then find it difficult to disengage. Worse, one might become acclimated to it. While someone not versant in the family vernacular might consider such acclimation desirable, reasoning that if one no longer noticed a noxious odor or perceived the absence of a breeze, then that must not be causing one any harm, the opposite was true. One could be lulled by desensitization into a complacent acceptance of a stuffy environment that continued to slyly inflict its damages. Thus, whenever the father bought a ticket to a movie, he would venture cautiously down the aisle, sniffing all the way, and might well turn back and demand that his money be returned if he discerned an unacceptable level of stuffiness. Drive-ins offered one solution to the problem, although the father suspected the local neighborhood drive-in of having “rat feathers” (see definition, page 220) in its pizza. Confirming the presence of “rat feathers” could be even more challenging than gauging the degree of “stuffiness,” since not seeing them did not mean they were not present. Knowing this did not deter the father from eating suspect pizza, but the possible presence of “rat feathers” needed to be acknowledged aloud. Words in the family lexicon had power, and the more graphic the description employing them, the greater the words’ capacity to render harmless the hazards they described. So, for example, speaking at great and graphic length about the rat feathers in the pizza would render them inert. (See magical thinking, page 95).
Uneducated in these nuances as a very young child, the daughter simply refused to eat the food proclaimed as having “rat feathers,” or ptomaine, or of having been contaminated by a waiter’s sleeve grazing its surface. Alternately, she might eat it, and then, remembering the father’s words, but still not clear about their precise relationship to reality, throw up. (See hysterical symptoms, page 57).
Since having to enter a structure to determine its “stuffiness” took energy, and the father, who was obese, and who, having to use a cane to compensate for his short leg, found walking onerous, there was value in being able to gauge “stuffiness” from outside a structure.
Example: One summer, the family took an impromptu driving trip to San Diego. At midnight, exhausted, they drove from motel to motel searching for a vacant room, the mother behind the wheel of the sleek, white 1960 Buick station wagon, the father in the passenger seat beside her, snack food wrappers strewn at his feet, the brothers Paul, 12, and Roger, 17, in the backseat, the daughter, age 7, surrounded by her stuffies (see Definition No. 2) in the back. As instructed, the mother cruised the front entrance of one four-story motel at five miles an hour, got as close as she could get to the building while the younger brother and the father conferred.
“What do you think?” the father said. “Do you think it’s stuffy?”
The brother considered the matter carefully, stuck his head out the window, as if he were a dog sniffing the air, senses on high alert. No, inadequate data. The mother circled the building, as if the back might hold important clues not visible from the front. The motel’s neon vacancy sign flickered. “It looks like it might be a little bit stuffy to me” the brother concluded. “Drive on, Evvie,” the father commanded, “Drive on!”
Stuffiness was not just a matter of aesthetic preference. “Stuffiness” could bring on an asthma attack in the father, or even in the absence of such overt symptomatology, could increase his overall sense of disquiet. The factors that contributed to shifts in the father’s physical and emotional state, were so myriad and so mysterious that they exhaust the capacity of this dictionary to define them; nevertheless, the family made every effort to quantify and parse them out.
Though the parents were always broke, always borrowing money from one bank to pay back another, every year, they took the family on a vacation to Las Vegas, where they rented a suite at one of the area’s then five or six lush strip hotels. At the Tropicana or Riviera, with the air conditioning going full blast, and every window open, the father would fling open the sliding glass doors, stand on the terrace, let the desert air blow on his face, and momentarily experience contentment. Peace in the father’s soul: the antonym of stuffiness; the balm they all sought.
Stuffy (noun) Definition 2. a plush toy made of synthetic fibers, stuffed with indeterminate material, and then brushed to resemble animal fur. Often with button or google eyes, a plastic nose, and black stitching to suggest a mouth. Red felt tongue often present at time of sale, but yanked out or torn shortly afterward.
“Stuffy” was a generic term used to refer to any of the inhabitants of the daughter’s quite extensive menagerie. These toys were meant to substitute for a real pet to which the daughter was allergic. Of course, each also had a name, ranking in the hierarchy, and relationship with the others. The Über stuffy was the late Jo Jo. When the daughter, at age four, carelessly dropped Jo Jo in the gutter as she climbed into the back seat of the cobalt blue DeSoto parked in downtown Hollywood, the father, making a judgment that the ragged monkey had become irremediably contaminated by “pigeon droppings,” took it away.
At that moment, Jo Jo became the symbol, the sina qua non, of the ultimate longed for but unavailable object, and the foreboding embodiment of all the losses that were to come. The father’s guilt over throwing away Jo Jo led him to buy the daughter a nearly infinite number of stuffies, none of which could ever replace he who had been lost.**
** Lost (adj) Misplaced, referring to objects. That which can never be repossessed, when referring to time. Closely tied to grief; may lead to longing and nostalgic idealization of that which has been lost; melancholy. That which has been lost, regardless of its original worth, may become highly valued as a result of its absence. When longing for something that is lost,and blaming oneself for its absence, it is easy to fall into the fantasy that something else, or enough something elses, might replace it. “If only I had back X,” one might think, “all would be resolved.” Example: If only I had Jo Jo back, the daughter believed, “I would feel safe.”
Nevertheless, the daughter demanded them all, each one in its turn becoming the object of greatest desire: the kangaroo with the baby in her pouch, said baby being only a square of fabric with ears, eyes, and a mouth, but giving an illusion of body when kept inside the mother’s pouch; the baby blue teddy bear with the head disproportionately large to the size of its arms and legs, the zebra with long plastic eyelashes; the pink poodle; and the brown horse, and the gray elephant with red ears, and the tiger (striped, of course), and the skunk modeled on Flower in Bambi, etc.
Two days after casting out Jo Jo, while the daughter continued to mourn the loss, the father brought home an alpha male meant to replace and surpass him, a circus chimp with rubber hands, a rubber face, suspenders, and rubber tennis shoes. The daughter resisted the chimp’s appeals at first, remaining loyal to her skanky, saliva-ridden transitional object, but soon she was won over by his opposable thumbs and ability to hang from furniture. Still she could not bear to even give him a name, (thus, he is not listed in this dictionary) and resolved to never take him out of the house for fear of recurrent primate loss. Instead she appointed him the caretaker over all the other animals. When she was out, she would pretend to call him from pay phones to ask if there were any zebra-tiger squabbles, or signs of dissension in the ranks.
Stuffy. (adj) Def. 3. Congestion of the nasal passages, leading to a feeling of fullness in the head radiating into the face. May result in the frightening illusion that the back of the head is expanding. Chronic stuffiness of the nose may be accompanied by other respiratory complaints, or may transmute into other physical sensations, or mental states, such as fuzzy thinking.
“Stuffy” referred to the chronic condition of the daughter’s nasal passages in childhood. The throat and bronchial tubes were no less congested. Though the father had moved to La Crescenta in the 1940s to escape the ragweed of the Midwest, to breathe the clean environment that was said to partake of the best qualities of both desert and seaside, smog had crept up into the Crescenta Valley foothills where the family resided so that a sheet of brown, acrid-smelling, petroleum-tinged haze hung over the atmosphere. Stuffiness afflicted the father’s respiratory system as well, perhaps one reason for the tight bond, the overidentification between himself and his daughter.
Multiple remedies for stuffiness were sought, some of which were aimed at changing the environment in which the daughter resided, some of which felt aimed at modifying her. There were antihistamines and nose sprays, poultices of Vick’s rub; humidifiers, and air cleaners, and hypoallergenic fabric covers. There were even attempts to clothe her stuffies (Definition No. 2) in said covers, or to reduce their reproduction, as in the mother’s saying, “Not one more stuffy in this house.”
Convergences of Meaning
The three definitions of stuffy, when taken together, produced new meanings. The daughter’s stuffy nose, as in definition No. 3 inevitably led to a strong aversion to stuffy places, as delineated in definition No.1. And stuffies, as described in definition No. 2 contributed to said stuffy nose (definition No.3) since those faux animals originally meant to substitute, to serve as emotional succor, as compensation for the real live pets to which the daughter was allergic, attracted dirt and dust mites and became sources of allergy in their own right. Although stuffy (definition No. 3) may have begun in the nasal passages, it migrated and generalized to afflict her overall condition of being, as in “I feel stuffy,” or “I am stuffy.” In the semiotics of the daughter’s body, there was no getting away from stuffiness, leading to the daughter’s conclusion that something was not entirely right with a) the self or b) the world. But the daughter could not resolve this question: the world was a stuffy place and she was a stuffy child in it. For who can really distinguish world outside from the self’s experience of it; words used to describe states of being and the states themselves? Even the best dictionaries (this one included) cannot accomplish this discrimination.
Still the daughter’s attempts at Annotation will continue.
About the Author
Deborah A. Lott is a member of the Adjunct Faculty of Antioch University Los Angeles and teaches creative and academic writing. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, Puerto del Sol, and Salon, among other publications. Her essays have been named twice as notable essays of the year in “Best American Essays” (2004 & 2006).