I remember reading the classic novel Tom Jones as an undergraduate and scratching my head over this passage: “Tom asked Widow Miller if he might come in to offer his condolences to the sobbing matron. ‘Yes, Sir,’ the grieving woman answered. ‘I am presently quite comfortable.’”
What? I think it defies reason to equate grieving with being “quite comfortable,” especially now that I myself have been widowered. Yes, I know there’s no such term as “widowered,” but if you whisper it a few times, it sounds just like Tweety Bird trying to say ‘little word.’ Please spare me the groans — I’m just trying to squeeze out a bit of humor any way I can these days.
Because there was no googling in 1968, when I first read Tom Jones, I was forced to go to the university library the next day to see if perhaps I could find in the Oxford English Dictionary an older definition of “comfortable” that was in use during the 1700’s when the novel was written. And I did.
Back then, “comfortable” meant exactly what its four syllables literally imply: “Able To Be Comforted.” Widow Miller was simply telling Tom that she was now able to appreciate any comfort he might be able to offer her. And if you know the lusty nature of this particularly handsome Tom in Henry Fielding’s novel, you know exactly what type of comfort he could instinctively offer widows and any other women.
I’ve been thinking about that old-fashioned definition recently. The many months of LeRoy’s rapidly declining health and the ten weeks now since his death have been the most uncomfortable time of my life. And yet — in the eighteenth-century definition of the word — I’ve never been more “comfortable.” When I’m now not able to be good for anything else, I am always more than able to receive comfort from others. And you, my readers, have provided that to me in such abundance.
An overwhelming sixty-eight of you took the time to respond to my last essay concerning my eulogy. You comforted me not only with your heartfelt condolences but also with poignant and wondrous stories of your own personal experiences with grief, bereavement, and, for some, your eventual unexpected encounters with regained joy. I read and responded to each email feeling that your writing was a benediction that you bestowed upon me, and I tried to respond accordingly.
By the way, I have now learned how the word “comfortable” lost its original meaning of "being able to be comforted" and became our modern definition of “enjoying physical ease and relaxation ” — in short, being “comfy.” It happened in England and can be credited to, of all people, Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite.
These famous furniture makers were the first to design their pieces with their clients’ comfort as a top priority. They insisted that their upholsterers create soft padded coverings on armchairs and sofas so that those who purchased them could enjoy the same kind of comfort that widows had been craving from those who surrounded them with soothing words of support and consolation.
And of course the word “upholsterer” derives from the Middle English “one who upholds.” Upholsterers were those who made sure that the furniture purchaser would be “upheld” snugly with the comfort features created by these craftsmen’s comfy padded coverings.
And, so, dear readers, you need to know that I now consider all of you my personal upholsterers. You have been “up-holding” me by giving me a written venue — In Plain Engel-ish — to share my deepest feelings both before and since LeRoy’s passing. And for those of you who are kind enough to email me your thoughts following a particular essay, you are upholding me twice.
Let me conclude by singling out one of you, a fellow teacher of English, who even figured out a way to embrace and uphold me with humor last week after the essay on my eulogy appeared. You not only wrote me with compassion, but you ended with this perfect and perfectly fitting joke:
A professor of English had lost her husband, a difficult man whom her friends and colleagues found hard to like. At his funeral, the minister asked if any of those attending would want to say “a word” about the deceased. There was an embarrassingly long silence before one of her colleagues relunctantly approached the pulpit. He faced the congregants and indeed uttered a one-word eulogy: “Plethora.”
As he left the pulpit, passing by the grieving widow, she took his hand and said to him “That means ‘a lot’ to me.”
And so I end with a plethora of gratitude in expressing just how “a lot” you all mean to me: in a word, gobs!
And do let him know if it took you a minute to “get” the pun on “plethora” at the end of the joke. He knows you’re out there!