Searching for Words 
creative nonfiction by Cheyanne Leonardo

My daddy is a man of few words.

At least, that’s what they say about men who don’t have a lot to say. And some say it’s a good thing to be of few words. It means you don’t make a big deal about yourself. It means you never say too much but always just enough.

Well, it’s true my daddy doesn’t say much. When we take our places at the dinner table – just the three of us – and me and my momma prattle on and on about something or someone, my daddy doesn’t say anything. But he has his own way with words.

My daddy sits behind a bowl of steaming soup beans and crumbles warm, buttery cornbread fresh out of the cast iron skillet into his dish. He wears his reading glasses low on the bridge of his big nose, and, sprawled out before him, taking precedence over his supper, is a book of word searches. Red pen in hand, he scratches out chains of letters in bleeding crimson lines. 

I peek across the table at the book. Today’s theme: Simply Heroic. Description: The real hero isn’t the guy on the white horse with a sword in his hand. It’s the honest Joe who exercises these unflashy but solid virtues.

Joe, my momma says, how are the beans?

Pretty good, pretty good, he says, which is the highest compliment he will bestow upon our cooking. And he saves such praise for just two meals – soup beans and chicken and dumplins. The fresh fish on Friday or the macaroni casserole or the sausage and peppers will only yield an Alright or a Fair. But even that is usually tacked onto an It’s-missing-something. 

And usually what it’s missing is salt, even though he always tells me not to put it in because he’s not supposed to eat too much salt.

So he will salt his food and then he will eat his whole meal without looking up from his puzzles, all the while searching for words and saying almost none at all.  

According to today’s list of words, one of the virtues characterizing honest Joe is: quiet. 

Q – U – I – E – T, my daddy finds it and scratches it out letter-by-letter in red pen. 


Peace and quiet, my daddy used to say as we took our places at the table. I want some peace and quiet this evening.

That was long before the word searches and red pens.

And in those days, when the TV set only came on after supper was finished, I would swing my dirty bare feet underneath the table and I would talk anyway. My daddy never complained unless I tried to balance my chair on its two hind legs. Don’t rear back in the chair, he would say. You’ll fall and bust your head, Tater-bug.

Back then, he had funny nicknames for me. Half-pint. Nimrod. Tater-bug. 

Tater-bug was my favorite. I imagined myself small and red with black spots, crawling around the sprouting eyes of a potato.  

I liked the way my daddy put words together and the way they rolled out of his mouth like marbles. 


After supper I sit on my bed and dump out a box of words printed on tiny rectangular magnets. I, too, search for words. I pick them out of little piles and arrange them on metal boards and try to connect them, coax new meaning from them. 

It’s like writing, but I have a finite number of words with which I can create something new. There’s something freeing about the limitations of a single box of words. 

you asked me then
between the rose-red moon and a raven dream
and I whispered half delirious
we are as you believe
sing us into the earth I said
echo our love through the honey sky
there is no blood lost together say you want to try

Word by word, I piece poems together so I can hush my head. So I can see myself better. So I can let something out, something that wants to live outside of me.


Why did you get demoted, I asked, bare feet swinging.

‘Cause I killed three civilians, he said. Run ‘em over with a tank. 

I imagined a red trail of blood along some pathway through the jungle.

Why did you do that, I asked.

It was Vietnam, my daddy said. It was kill or be killed.


My daddy doesn’t ask for peace and quiet at supper anymore. Now it’s me who goes to mute the television before we sit down to eat. It’s on all day long, filling every nook and cranny of silence. They’re creepy and they’re kooky making your way in the world today Green Acres is the place to be boy the way Glen Miller played now sit right back and hear a tale Sunday Monday happy days. 

I can’t hear myself think.

At least, that’s what they say, when there are so many words swirling around you that you can’t access the ones in your own head.


When I was eleven, I sat on the grass in my front yard with my legs crossed in front of me. I held a dandelion in my hand, contemplating the wish I would make when I tried to blow away all the seeds in a single breath. I was probably thinking about whatever boy I had a crush on, hoping he would like me back.

Suddenly, my daddy opened the front door and stepped out on the porch, our little dog Tippy racing out behind him. 

Don’t blow them seeds, he said. I don’t want more weeds growing in the yard. 

But I want to make a wish, I replied. Then, Daddy why do you love Tippy more than me?

Because the dog don’t talk back, he said.

Of course Tippy doesn’t talk back, she doesn’t know any words, I thought but did not say. 


Are you finished with your meal, I ask. 

Without looking up, my daddy pushes his empty bowl toward me. That means yes, he’s finished.

I take the bowl and lay it into mine. I stand up to bring the dirty dishes to the kitchen, stealing another peek at honest Joe’s list of virtues.

S – T – O – L – I – D, letter-by-letter, he draws a red line through the word.

For what? A yard that can’t be played in, concrete that can’t be written on, a house that can’t have company over. It’s like having all the work of taking care of the house without being able to use it. 

One time I caught my momma searching for words.

Well, she had already searched them. And wrote them down in blue ink on a yellow Steno pad. 

I found the note years later, hidden in her desk.

I memorized all the worst parts.

I have done all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, and shopping, as well as helping with yard work and painting and anything else I can do.
For what? A yard that can’t be played in, concrete that can’t be written on, a house that can’t have company over. It’s like having all the work of taking care of the house without being able to use it.
I’m constantly nagging Cheyanne, worried she might damage something. I have to say no to letting her write with chalk on the driveway.
I have watched her learn about conditional love and acceptance. I hope she will reject it. I don’t want her to love that way.
I remember when I started having those really bad pains and went to the doctor to find out why. I remember the mornings you would take your pleasure with no concern for the pain you were causing me. I remember biting on the pillow to keep from crying out.
I remember thinking you loved me once.
It seems so long ago.

She hadn’t torn the pages out. She had kept them bound, kept the words to herself.


My daddy peeks around the doorframe.

Are you doing your poems, he asks.

Yes, I say.

Well, read it to me.

I pick up the metal board. He listens.

you are a half open window
a shadow of sleep
a cup of coffee every night, dreamlike
the skin of the moon
slow mornings melting hot on wild breath
laughing ghosts, or is it whispering wind
kissing full eyes shut
you are the blue of the sky
summer air, lingering into winter
a field of blooming stars
blushing, bleeding, soft
an almost ocean
no –
you are home

Pretty good, pretty good, he says.

And then he walks away.


One day I came home from school and saw my momma crying. I think I was nine. 

What’s wrong, momma, I asked.

Nothing, she lied. I’m fine.

But momma, you’re crying. That means you’re sad. 

I am sad.

Tell me why.

Because I don’t have any friends.

I’m your friend, momma.

That’s not what I mean.

You have friends.

No one can come over to visit.

What about Tim and Kim? They are your friends, I said. We can go visit them.

I told her how much I would like to go visit Tim and Kim. They had a rickety old house with one-hundred cats in it, and they knew how to do magic.

But the promise of magic did not cheer her up. She did not stop crying.


More and more often, I pick up a pen and write my poems on paper. 

I have twelve boxes of words now but they are not always enough. Not when I need a word that isn’t in any of the boxes. Not when I want to feel the words letter-by-letter and scratch them out when they are wrong and write new ones. 

For every finished poem there are probably ten pages of scratched-out words.


I was five the first time I called him Daddy.

That was when my momma and I moved in. 

We used to live in a little apartment. A tin building off the side of the highway.

There was no daddy there. It was just me and my momma. And we were happy that way.

And later I was happy with my daddy, too. He taught me how to shoot a basketball and ride a bike without training wheels. He watched SpongeBob and Looney Tunes with me on Saturday mornings. He buckled me up into the pickup truck and took me to get vanilla ice cream cones. He stood outside on sticky summer evenings and used his wristwatch to time how fast I could run around the house. He paid me a penny a piece to pick dandelions out of the yard – damned old weeds – and when I counted ninety-two, he gave me a whole dollar anyway. 

Sometimes when I was mad at my daddy I’d say to him, You’re not my father!

Which was true.

But those words hurt him.

That’s a funny thing about words: some of them hurt when you say them, and some of them hurt when you don’t.


Did you quit doing your magnets, my daddy asks.

No, I say. I just don’t use them all the time. I like to write on paper, too.

And then he walks away.

He never asks me to read the poems on paper.


I remember the unforgivable day.

My momma is not from the hills like my daddy and me. She is from somewhere else. Somewhere far away.

We had just driven fifteen hours, coming back from visiting her family in New York. My daddy did not come with us.

When my momma and I got back home that evening, my daddy’s son was there with his wife and two children.

Back then I thought of him as a brother, although he was much older than me and I only saw him a couple times a year.

It was probably exhausting enough to come home to a house full of guests after a long trip. But then my daddy’s son suggested they go fishing. 

And they all went. And left my momma and me with the kids. 

The two-year-old was mean and the baby was fussy. I was afraid of the baby, so I looked after the two-year-old. I tried to get him to play games with me and color pictures. 

My momma sat in the recliner, rocking the screaming baby in her arms. 

She looked at me with tears streaming down her face. She was a ghost of herself. 

I can’t believe he would do this, she said, raising her voice over the baby’s cries. Leave us here like this! I will never forgive him!

I am sure she did not forgive him, but I don’t know if she ever told him that.

Either way, my daddy would not have apologized.

I’m sorry are words he does not say.


I could have done it without him, my momma says, looking up at me from her desk chair. 

I know, I say. Why didn’t you?

I wanted us to be safe, she says. 

Safe from what?

And then she says something about her ex-husband and the messy divorce and the lawsuits and court.

And I don’t fully get it, but I say, Okay.

Now that she is ill, taking care of her means taking care of him.

And he is my daddy and I do love him.

But I wish she hadn’t stayed.

Not after I saw her words. 

Not after I felt the full weight of his.

But I don’t know how to say this.

All I can think is I want to scratch out the wrong words and find the right ones.

Cheyanne Leonardo is a poet and memoirist from the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. She earned a Master of Arts in Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Tennessee in 2018 and is currently working toward her Master of Arts in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Cheyanne lived and worked for two years in Stuttgart, Germany, as an English teacher and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. Her creative work often explores ideas of identity, centered around tensions between growing up in Appalachia and living abroad. She is an emerging writer, just beginning to share her work with the world.