My granddad Williams loved ‘queuing’, the British version of standing in line. Whenever we walked together through the village of Welshpool and came across a stretch of people, patient and resigned—to the weather, to life, to waiting on the sidewalk under featureless black umbrellas with broken spines—he’d insist we join them. We’d stand at the back, where he’d lean his bald, age-spotted head toward the person in front of us and start up a conversation. As he spoke, his gums smacked wetly between syllables and his lips flapped like two too-long, too-heavy wings around his toothless gums—the man never remembered to put in his dentures. But that didn’t stop him from chattering lisp-ily on about the weather, the price of cabbages, the best way to kill a pig (right between the eyes, and mind you don’t miss), the value of good boots, or whatever was on his mind and tongue. As soon as someone joined the queue behind us, he’d engage the newcomer in the banter, and call out to a few people further up the line to “put in their two cents”. It didn’t matter who it was in the line, punks with kohl-lined eyes and mohawks or matrons in London Fog raincoats and support pantyhose, he’d flatter the ladies and joke with ‘the lads’ as we shuffled along all the way up to the front of the line. There we’d meet the butcher, or chippy owner, or newsagent—whomever it was the people had come to see—and my granddad would talk with him/her, just for a minute or so, before letting him/her know that no, thank you kindly, but he didn’t need anything, not today. “Just stopped in to see what all the fuss was about, was all,” and then we would finally be back on our way.
I imagine that most people thought he was crazy, this toothless, suspendered, Wellington-booted old man with his flip-flapping gums. His ears stuck out ninety degrees from his head and he always insisted on wearing the neon-green tank top my cousin had brought him from Florida, which he mistook for an undershirt. Beneath his ironed-transparent white cotton shirt, the tank lent his torso a sickly, alien hue. He was a character, no doubt about it, a loveable eccentric, but even I thought it was madness, this magnetic attraction he had to queues. What kind of a person chooses to wait in line? As a North American teenager in 1980s, I could think of nothing I hated more—nothing—than being forced to endure the monotony of waiting.
This past month, though, it seems I’ve been doing nothing else. My agent’s sent my proposal to various publishers and we’re now awaiting a response. An exciting job opportunity arose, I had my interview and now I’m chewing my fingernails to see if it will consolidate into an offer. But probably hardest waiting of all is the one that has consumed me these past two years: the wait for that mythical, magical ‘switch’ to flick in my daughter’s brain, the one everyone swears will click into place at some point in the eating disorder healing process and make an enduring recovery possible.
Impatient for this miracle, I’ve spent much of the last two years bombarding my poor daughter with words, words, words—mine, Buddha’s, Neruda’s, and the ubiquitous Anonymous’—all in the hope that amongst the endless volleys of quotes, aphorisms and sayings I’ve launched from my desperate camp, one will wedge deep enough into her psyche to loosen this mythical ‘switch’.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet. Now, many years into the battle, some friends council me to surrender; the brain will change on its own, they say. No one knows what causes the switch to flick and for all anyone can guess, my daughter’s may be snapped into action by something a stranger says in passing, or even a funny episode of How I Met Your Mother. I should just be patient, they tell me. Just do nothing. Just wait.
According to Merriam-Webster, to waitfor something is “to remain stationary in readiness or expectation”. We essentially perform the action of inaction. But to wait on—that’s different, that’s to “supply the wants of’. It’s actively serving and attending another. In other words, we can wait by either holding our breath, or by holding forth.
I know my granddad’s conversation never made anyone’s wait for fish and chips go by any faster, but it might have made the wait seem shorter. At the very least, I know his flirting with the ninety-year old grandmother made that woman smile, and when he recited the prices of corned beef at each of the three competing grocery stores in town he helped one housewife streamline her errand list.
My granddad may have sputtered when he talked, having no teeth to effectively barricade the saliva. But by never wearing his dentures, he also developed gums of steel. He could eat an apple and even chew steak without ever putting in his dentures. The power, he explained, was in the jaw. In the end, it’s not what you have, but how you use what you do that makes all the difference.
I imagine my granddad learned to endure waiting so well because he’d spent decades queuing for rations in North Wales while Great Britain struggled to recover from World War II. He must have learned then that in a line-up a person could either waste time or pass time. And when my granddad retired, he also learned that he could pass on his time, since as a retiree he had an abundance of it, and help make someone else’s wait a little less dull.
Everyone must wait at times. But nobody has to do it all alone, or in silence. I know words are feeble weapons against such a deadly disease as my daughter’s, but at least their supply is endless. There’s always a new poem, a new blog post, a new study. There’s always a new hope. And while I know that sending my daughter Wild Geese by Mary Oliver will not make her wait any shorter, it might just help her pass some of her time. And that’s something, at least. Something better than nothing.