Lesbian Slip

We were relaxing after supper, my daughter, who was ten, and my ninety-six-year-old grandmother, and I. Marcella had long known that I was a lesbian, and in her simple child’s way understood perfectly. Grandma was another matter; I would have to wait for her to die before I could be open in the family about who I was. She could never be told. I loved her; there seemed no reason to distress her, who kept herself so deliberately innocent about the facts of life, let alone their infinite variety.

Over coffee and dessert, our talk turned to words; perhaps we had been playing anagrams, as we often did. I found myself speaking about how words can shape our perceptions, and started to illustrate my point with the fact that it seems the Eskimos have twenty-eight (or whatever) words for snow, whereas we have only one.

“For instance,” I began, “the Lesbian word for snow. . . ” There it was, spilled out on the table. “I mean the Eskimo word. . . ” I recovered, without missing a beat, and went on with my point. I don’t know what Grandma thought, if she noticed it at all, or if she noticed but obediently promptly forgot. Marcella, for whom the word lesbian carried no particular charge, had not marked my slip.
And I, as I talked on, giving other examples, was thinking “. . . Hmmm, now why did I do that?” Lesbian, Eskimo. . . . Both, three-syllabled, similarly-accented words, to be sure. My mind had groped, and grabbed the wrong one. . . . But why was Lesbian filed there right next to Eskimo? As if it were the name of a language. “Lesbian spoken here.” . . . As if one might perhaps find words here for all the variations, the subtleties, the possibilities, and distinctions in things––concepts our old language never noticed. Worlds we never imagined, to be found right under our noses.