As a young boy, I didn’t speak properly—I only said vowels. Without consonants, of course, it was hard for anyone except my family and regular playmates to figure out what I was saying. My parents were assured by doctors and a psychologist that I wasn’t deaf or retarded. I would grow out of it. When I started first grade, in fact, I began to speak intelligibly.
But something happened when I was four years old. My Uncle Martin, Aunt Beatrice, and their daughter, Judy, lived in the apartment downstairs from us. Uncle Martin was my father’s younger brother and business partner. He may have married humorless Beatrice—the only woman in the family who’d gone to college—because she came from a wealthy family in the next town. I remember her always cleaning her apartment and criticizing everyone.
Cousin Judy was just six months older than me, so we always played together—until one day I came upstairs crying and told my mother that Judy couldn’t play with me anymore. Mother investigated and Aunt Beatrice told her something astounding: Judy’s elocution teacher insisted she shouldn’t spend time with me because of my speech problem.
Elocution was one of those refinements, like tap-dancing and piano lessons, that parents forced on their little girls in those days. As I grew older and went around the neighborhood, I saw a sign in an apartment window that said: “Olivia Merlof, Elocution Lessons.” I never met Mrs. Merlof, but I was in school with her nephew Melvin Merlofsky. Melvin’s father hadn’t followed his brother’s lead in shortening the family name.
I knew Elocution meant some kind of fancy recitations and that it had spoiled a portion of my early years. Since Cousin Judy by then was a bossy, censorious child when I was required to spend time with her—which was permitted now that my speech was okay—I couldn’t understand why the loss of her companionship had ever bothered me.
Fast-forward 60 years. Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Martin had died years before. I’d seen Judy a few times. She was a pleasant woman with a successful career in a government bureaucracy, managing many people.
My mother had just died, and people were coming by to pay their respects. Two women came in whom I didn’t recognize. They said they were Mrs. Merlof and Mrs. Merlofsky, sisters-in-law from the old neighborhood.
“I was a dear friend of your Aunt Beatrice,” the one who was Mrs. Merlof said with careful, refined articulation.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Did you used to teach elocution?”
“Yes, I did,” she said. “Ages ago.”
“And you told my Aunt Beatrice that my Cousin Judy shouldn’t play with me because of the way I talked?”
The 90-year-old ex-elocution teacher claimed not to remember the incident. I could see I’d made her very uncomfortable.
It’s possible that Aunt Beatrice had made it all up, falsely ascribing the prohibition to Mrs. Merlof. Her motivation would have been antipathy to my family—or her fear of downward mobility if her daughter were infected by associating with one of us who spoke like an imbecile.
Someone said the desire to avenge past wrongs can spoil one’s present life. Since I hadn’t thought much about the Elocution incident over the years, this simply felt good, especially on that somber occasion. Besides, Mrs. Merlof had to have noticed how nicely I spoke.