My family is not rich. We don’t own any property besides the hunting cabin on a lake, which is now my parents’ home, that my great grandfather built in the woods of northern Michigan. My parents mortgaged it to turn it from an uninsulated hunting cabin into a home. When my parents die, I will inherit the property and most likely a lot of debt associated with it, so let’s hope they live forever.
The cottage was originally used for hunting, drinking, gambling and general cavorting by my male relatives. It didn’t have a door when it was built, just a heavy tarp. One night, a black bear came in and made himself at home. My grandfather let off a warning shot inside the house. The bear looked him right in the eye as if he had just farted, not fired a shotgun, and continued what he was doing. Over the course of several minutes, which to my grandfather, I’m sure felt like an eternity, after he had taken whatever he wanted from the kitchen, the bear nonchalantly made his exit. A door was installed the next day. The shot from the shotgun was left in the wall as an admonition until my parents added insulation to the place.
I won’t inherit much of value when my parents die. There will be no cash settlement, but what resides in that cottage are priceless family heirlooms that don’t mean as much to anyone else. Some of them I already have, like my grandfather’s pocket watch, but most of my inheritance comes in the form of stories and some of it comes in the weird things I say without even realizing it.
Today, I’m going to talk about some of the things I say that are second nature to me, but always fetch strange looks from those outside of my family.
Have you ever wondered why you use the phrases you do? Why do you use them and where did they come from? I wonder all the time. I have a ton of Yiddish in my vocabulary, even though I’m goy. As it turns out, my great-great grandmother was Jewish, which means I’m Jewish, too. Once I found that out, all the Yiddish used in my family made perfect sense. I inherited most of my strange idioms from my grandmother. She had a way with words.
Queer as Patty’s pig
That was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings. She didn’t mean queer as in sexual orientation, but in the odd sense. Somewhere, sometime in history, there was someone named Patty who had a very strange pig and I find myself still talking about that pig from time to time, because it’s one of the phrases I grew up hearing. She also used “odd duck” a lot that has the same meaning. Maybe the duck was Patty’s, too.
A yo-yo in my family is not two attached circular discs with a string, like this:
A yo-yo is a measuring tape. Everyone in my family, including my uncle and his family, calls that a yo-yo. I’m not sure why that is honestly. It led to some confusion as a kid since I had the exact yellow Duncan yo-yo pictured above.
That’s not projecting as in protruding, making projections or using a projector. It’s projecting as in doing a project. It’s even pronounced differently. It’s not pro-jecting; it’s prah-jecting. That’s right. We have our own gerund. The family that projects together, stays together. My family is inordinately fond of projects. When my mom and dad came to visit California a few years back, I had just moved into a new place. On their vacation, my dad helped me install a screen door, fix the windows and paint the place. We project; it’s what we do.
This one is my grandfather’s phrase. He had a pair of faded and used blue jeans that he wore whenever he was home and projecting. He called them his sooners. The explanation is groan-worthy: “I’d sooner wear these pants than any others.” In a lot of the pictures of my grandfather, he’s wearing his sooners.
My father has a pair of faded blue carpenter Dickies with the pocket for the yo-yo and the hammer loop on the side that he wears for projecting. I have a pair of faded blue carpenter Dickies with the pocket for the yo-yo and the hammer loop on the side that I wear for projecting. They are covered in paint splatters and I just had to patch them since there was a rip in the back.
Stinkum is perfume. My mom bought me stinkum for Christmas. When I called her on Christmas and we were opening packages, she asked me, “Is that the right stinkum?” because she couldn’t remember if that was a brand of perfume I wear. It was the right stinkum.
On every bedside table of every member of my family across America, you will find either a jar of Mentholatum, or for us new school types, sticks:
We use it for chapped lips, and if you have a stuffy nose, you put a dab under each nostril and it helps you breathe. If you have a chest cold, you can slather it over your chest. I’m not sure that it helps anything, but it feels nice and tingly.
For some unknown reason, we call this stuff treat. We’ll be in the car and someone will pull out some treat, put some on, hold the stick up and say, “Treat?” We’ll pass it around until it gets back to the original treat owner.
Put your face on
Put your face on means the finishing touches of getting ready to go out. It means you’ve already taken a shower, done your hair and gotten dressed, but still need to put on deodorant or shoes or something. I would imagine that it has its origins in putting on makeup, but even the men in my family use this phrase. Are you ready to go yet? Give me five minutes, I just need to put my face on and find my other shoe.
Don’t waste your ups
Of all my grandmother’s phrases, this is the one that gets used the most. Other people who’ve heard me say it have co-opted it. My grandmother was terribly lazy or greatly enjoyed economy of movement, whichever way you choose to look at it. For example, if we were all sitting around the table playing board games at night, and someone got up to get a glass of water, she would say, “Don’t waste your ups, grab me a glass of water, too.” Don’t waste your ups is a phrase I use all the time. At first, it confused my friends when I’d hand them an empty glass and say it, but now, they use it, too. I think the fact that her lazy phrase has continued to live on after her would make my grandmother very happy.
Go Tell Aunt Rhody
My grandmother was a terrible person, but she wasn’t all bad. Tucked away inside of me are the few times where she was great. There was the one time it was so hot that she got a lawn chair and sat in the lake all afternoon. My grandmother couldn’t swim and never went in the water.
There were the times sitting around the table playing board games at night when she got laughing so hard, she’d start crying. If we were poking fun at her for losing yet again, she’d say “Go to hell, alla ya,” with a mischievous smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye.
There were the times that she’d tell me our family’s history. I would sit rapt at her feet as she told me about different eras and people who died long before I was born. No one else wanted to hear the stories, but I did. I wanted to hear it all. Unfortunately, since I had a traumatic head injury, it turns out that I was not the right one to pass our oral history on to since I can’t remember most of it, and the stories I do remember are not time/date stamped anymore. It’s a shame. Most of that history is lost.
There were the times when I didn’t know what a word meant and I’d ask her. I’d always ask her, because besides everything else, she was a very smart lady who graduated from Cornell University with honors at a time when women didn’t really do that.
She’d take me by my little hand and we’d look it up together in the dictionary. She kindled and nurtured my love of words. They were not big, scary, unknown things; they were all listed in a book with what they meant and how to use them! How absolutely cool. Neither one of us ever lost our love of learning. When she turned 80 years old, I bought her a large-print dictionary. She cried. Autodidactism was the one thing we shared that the rest of the family didn’t really understand.
My absolute fondest memory of my grandmother though is of her singing me to sleep. She’d tuck me in, sit on the edge of the bed, gently brush my hair away from my face and sing me this song.
We never had an Aunt Rhody nor did we keep any geese and my grandmother had a terrible singing voice, but none of that mattered. It was the simple fact that she was singing it just for me. I will keep those moments, sayings and songs trapped in my heart forever.