Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Family Language

I've been thinking about it a lot lately, the special words that bind us as a family. Sometimes these silly remains of idiolects are all that remain of someone you loved, and love still.

Spending time last week with my brothers John and Rob underlined this for me. We joked about all kinds of things, and we fell into old patterns of speech and even our original accents, which were strange to modern ears. No one talks like we did, not even where we were brought up. They sound pretty much like Americans now; we sounded like immigrants from some weird English-Irish-New England territory that's sunk under the sea.

I remember some of the intimate, childish family words we used, like:

Eggie = soft-boiled egg

Slugow = rimes with "cow", a macaroni and hamburg concoction made in a frying pan

Dubbah = wanker

Hah fream = ice cream (these things start out as baby talk and wind up being used against the kid who came up with it)

Binlt - build, with a nasal vowel

Fi-ah fuck = firetruck

Episketti = spaghetti

Frishafrisha = refrigerator

And others I can't remember right now.

My late wife and my kids devised special ways of construing certain words, too. And pronouncing "regular" words.

For example, Marcia, my wife, had a distinctly "black" pronunciation with many words, among them:

ambu-LANCE

Cee-ment

Mus'eh-mm = museum

Poym = poem

All of which makes sense because the happiest, warmest memories of her childhood revolve around Henrietta, who was brought in to care for Marcia when she was a few months old. My late, great mother-in-law, Gert, was anxious to get back to work in the store to keep an eye on her husband, who wasn't so good at keeping it in his pants.

So Marcia followed Henrietta like a hungry puppy. She went to Wednesday night services with Henrietta, she loved the New York Yankees because Henrietta did, and she loved when Henrietta and her husband, Henry, took her in a buckboard to the peanut fields out in the country and sat round a fire and roasted peanuts, singing gospel songs with their friends. Marcia's dearest memory of her childhood was being out there with them by the fire, being passed from gentle arm to gentle arm, basking in the glow of being "Henr'etta's girl," carried aloft like sparks in the gospel songs they'd sing.

Marcia and I had our own secret words and signs as well. I'm not sharing those with anyone, ever.

My kids said a raft of cute kid things, of course. In the case of my daughter, Julia, who's been dead four years, her little sayings are much of what remains. For example, she used to ask about the little terrier next store, "Does Annie have fur pants?" Julia was toilet-trained at that point and wanted to make sure the dog wasn't soiling herself. Julia also corrected my pronunciation of the word "car" at an early age: "It's carrr, Daddy, not cah."

And as my son, Eric, lurches toward middle age, his special words are something to hang onto. When he was about a year and a half old, he'd hear me fulminating about some neighborhood brats who rode a motor scooter through our yard, so that when he heard them coming he'd growl, "Bustahrds!" Woops.

The kids and I -- okay, and their mother too -- would laugh over the odd pronunciations that Gert had, like:

Cookeh = cookie

Hunneh = honey -- as in "Mawsha, give the kids some cookehs, hunneh."

Furnichy = furniture

Chanuky = Chanukah

And others that time has erased from my dutiful memory.

The kids had some nice ones:

Baby suit = bathing suit

Prinsa Lee-a = Princess Lea

-- And, Christ, they're gone. Already gone. I can't recall any more. We're dying in more ways than one. Our brave little family is half gone, the two of us left are far away from each other. The little culture we built, one joke and sweet saying at a time, is disappearing as fast as a 21st century movie star.

This is the central sadness of getting old. Memory is water.


















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