The Grammarians

TO WILL. v. a. [wilgan, Gothick; pillan, Saxon; willen, Dutch.] 5. It is one of the signs of the future tense; of which it is difficult to show or limit the signification.
—A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
Sally has written the dictionary into her will. Her daughters will wonder if she did it to shame them, which will be partially true. But she has done it for Arthur, too. To protect his smile as he watched the little girls, cheek to cheek, shoulder to shoulder, trying to read all the words in the world. And partly, this codicil in her will is whim. What is the good of dying if you cannot indulge in a whimsical codicil to your will?

The dictionary will spend half the year on the Upper West Side with Laurel, and half the year in Brooklyn with Daphne. Sally does not insist on which six months will be spent in which borough, that is up to the dictionary’s guardians, who she is certain will do what is best for their charge.

And so, the dictionary and its stand make their way to Manhattan first, to a spacious apartment that is welcoming, happy to receive it. In six months to the day, the dictionary and its companion, the dictionary stand, are placed in the trunk of Michael’s SUV and driven to their winter quarters, equally welcoming.

This will go on for years, it will become a traditional harbinger of the seasons, like the turning of the leaves or the first crocus. Laurel will look at the dictionary and think of her father and his instant library and her mother and her codicil, her will that was her final act of will. And she’ll think of Daphne, the sister who once followed her around, letting her do everything first, waiting for her to try each new thing, then jumping in with confidence and abandon. How had they lived together for so long? How had they lived apart?

When Daphne helped Michael load the dictionary into the car to go back to its other parent, she said it was like stuffing a baby back into the womb. When the six months were up and the car returned with its cargo, she watched Michael pull the dictionary out and thought of her father the night the dictionary arrived at their house in Larchmont. She could feel Laurel beside her on the couch, their bare feet touching, their breathing audible only to each other.

“I think you miss your sister, Daphne,” Michael said.

“Phantom pain.”

But phantom pain is painful, and they both knew it.

* * *​

Girls, Sally wishes she could say from behind her closed eyes. I do apologize for the absurdist touch, but how does a mother communicate with children who look at words and read them but don’t listen? The dictionary will travel back and forth until the day you are left alone by the men who love you. And then perhaps you’ll listen. Then perhaps you will be able to hear each other. Laurel will be the one to suggest it, and not right away. The loneliness will take some time to seep into your bones, but it will. Your children will rally around you. Your friends, too. But neither of you has ever been alone. Some people are good at being alone. They like it, or so I’ve heard. But you have never been alone, and, frankly, it stinks at your age. Old dogs, etc.

“You know…” Laurel will say when it’s again time to take the dictionary back to her apartment for its six-month visit, “you know, my apartment feels so big. It’s so empty.”

You can no longer leave this task to Michael or Larry. It is a transfer you will have to do yourselves.

“My house feels enormous. And there are so many steps,” Daphne will say.

“The elevator is a merciful invention for old bags like us.”

“Old bags carrying bags.”

You will sit at a coffee shop and you will talk and you will remember each other. You will listen to each other, curious, attentive, to this person you barely know yet know so well.

And then Daphne and Laurel, the identical twin sisters with identical red hair now acquired from two different downtown colorists, will fall into their old ways. They will live together again. In a building with an elevator. They will have a spot in the living room for the dictionary on its altar. They will argue over how much salt to cook with and whether or not to put the knives in the dishwasher. They will argue about words and they will chat about words as if words were pets.

* * *​

Sally smiles as she sees all this rolling out in the time she doesn’t have but they do. You must know this already, she wants to tell her daughters. But you’re so stubborn that the story will take time, years. That’s how stories are in life. It’s like reading the dictionary from cover to cover, she wishes she could tell them.

They come into the room and sit, one on either side of the bed. They each take one of Sally’s hands. Their hands do not touch, but Sally doesn’t mind. You don’t have to touch to be touching. I am touched. You have always touched me, even when I felt so alone, when you were one.

In Sally’s story, at this very spot, there is a momentary sentimental shudder.

The word is “love,” the story tells her, but she says, No, that is nonsense. “Love” is a four-letter word, the story says, but Sally says, No, you are missing the point. There is no word, just words, lots and lots of them, a universe of words, galaxies of them.

The story shrugs and continues with these words: Daphne and Laurel love each other. Sally does not bother to answer, for that is a given, that is essential, that is albumen and yolk and shell together. Relax, she would tell the story if the story cared to listen. Relax and see what happens next.


First, foremost, fervently, and forever I would like to thank my editor, shepherd, and pal, Sarah Crichton, who is simply the best; Molly Friedrich and Lucy Carson, the dynamic duo, thank you; Kimberly Burns, dynamic dynamo, thank you; Jonathan Galassi, Lottchen Shivers, and everyone at FSG, thank you; Tommy Denby, revered son and linguist, thank you; word lovers of Twitter, especially Nancy Friedman, thank you; for the all-important pencil, thank you, Betsy Wildman; and for the room with the Assisi view, thank you, thank you, Art Workshop International. I was a bad copy editor long ago, and so to the many good copy editors everywhere I say, thank you, thank you, thank you, and please forgive the inevitable errors. My motto: I stand, corrected.