Encumber, My Lady

Sketch by Shirley Jackson, via New York

I’m not in the habit of doling out maternity advice (for exhibit a, look no further than this lengthy validation of my desire to eat poke bowls whilst pregnant), but here’s a piece: now is not the time to get a dog.

I didn’t get a dog, but I have two. One is an angel and a joy whose only flaw is an overfondness for sidewalk refuse. The other is — well, she’s very sweet (“she’s really very sweet,” is what everyone who’s been subjected to my screeds says, upon meeting her). She’s also incontinent and deaf, with a case of dementia that inspires her to walk around our living room in endless, clacking circles (her nails grow like the dickens), and an inability to go up or down stairs. Have I mentioned we live on the third floor of a walk-up? To be fair, she’s eighteen. To also be fair, when I adopted her, at sixteen, I didn’t think she would … live much longer? Is that a horrid thing to say?

At any rate, pre-baby, the stairs thing wasn’t such a big deal — the old dog is only about 15 pounds, and I’d just carry her up and down, while my chubby angel descended on her own four paws. Now, I still carry her, because what else am I going to do, but it’s football-style, jammed right up against the papoose on my chest. Picking her up, with said papoose, is a precarious business, and I learned quickly that her walks could not be combined with a trip to the market (or, heaven forbid, the wine store).

Anyways. I didn’t intend for this post to be an entry to the tiniest violin contest; what I intended to do was talk about the word “encumber.” Which popped into my head yesterday, as I made my way along a particularly narrow patch of Lafayette Avenue, an infant bobbing at my chest, one leash straining ahead, the other dragging behind. I was, I thought to myself, as fully encumbered and fully an encumbrance as I could recall ever being. But was I cumbered? 

Originally, a cumber was a literal hindrance: eg a cumber of downed trees. By the thirteenth century, it was a verb as well, meaning, as you’d expect, to hinder or obstruct.  (Somewhere around that time it also picked up a rather nasty additional meaning: “to overthrow, harass” — this from the Old French combrer, “to seize hold of, lay hands on, grab, snatch, take by force, rape.” But I digress. )By the mid eighteenth century, it had fallen out of fashion.

However, cumber’s relation to ‘encumber’ is less linear than I’d expected. Encumber starts cropping up in English in the early 14th century — far enough after cumber that it would seem to be a branch. In fact, both words are branches off the Old French encombrer, “to block up,” from combre, “river barrage.” Combre itself branch off either the Vulgar Latin *comboros, “that which is carried together,” or the Late Latin incombrare, from combrus, “obstacle.” The Vulgar Latin may have come from Gaulish; the Late Latin, from regular old Latin’s cumulus, “heap.” Regardless, all of it eventually reaches back to the Proto Indo European *com, “with, by” + *bher, “to carry OR to bear children.”

All this to say that I wasn’t truly encumbered yesterday on the sidewalk, and haven’t been since the wee hours of December 28th. And won’t be again for — oh goodness, at least a year or two or five. Until then, I will remind myself that, ahem, my encumbrances can be unbuckled and unleashed and cuddled and scratched at the spot where tail meets rump. Really, they are not encumbrances but blessings, fleetingly disguised.

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