Friday, April 30, 2010

As Plain As The Ear On Your Face

Last night, my 14-year-old daughter brought home a friend from school, Nicole*. Nicole was telling us that she recently moved to a larger home so that her widowed grandmother could live with them. I asked how she liked having her grandmother in the house. She rolled her eyes and began to tell us how her grandmother was always telling her what to do. “Half the time,” she complained, “I don’t even know what she’s talking about!” I asked her what she meant by that and Nicole went on to tell me that her grandmother uses phrases she’s never heard of and she has no idea what any of it means. I knew exactly how Nicole was feeling.

My grandparents raised me and it set me apart from my peers. Sometimes I felt like I was 16 going on 60. I looked at my friends’ parents, whom I’d always viewed as not just younger, but so much cooler. Just like Nicole, I’d often roll my eyes at what I called, the AARP vocabulary coming from my grandparents.

Despite the obvious generation gap that I viewed as problematic, I picked up a lot of the wisdom of yesteryear. There’s a different mindset among the Depression Era generation. Nothing went to waste; they either used it up or wore it out. The carcass of a roasted chicken never went in the garbage – it went into the soup pot with some greens and an onion – a habit I’ve retained all these years, thanks to my grandmother who was an excellent cook. I learned how to sew from my great-grandmother, Nana, who was a piece maker in a garment factory.

And my grandfather, in addition to being the center of my universe, was also an ace mechanic who taught me how to fix my car. He never wanted a mechanic to rip me off just because I was a girl. I learned how to change the oil, brakes, spark plugs, alternator, water pump, etc. But the air filter never needs to get replaced. It’s a waste of money. Take it out, clean it and put it back on.

There was something nostalgic about that generation. The stories are endless as are the little pearls of wisdom I’ve acquired. I like knowing the difference between a month of Sundays versus two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

What does seem to happen among this set, though, is a lot of confusion about these gems. Our common phrases seem to get all mixed up – sometimes even taking on a whole new meaning. Hearing how they spoke, it’s a wonder I learned any of these idioms correctly at all. But this was really the most fun about growing up with them – laughing about it all these years later!

On any given Sunday at my house you could spot my Nana (cooking) and her sister, Aunt Grace (directing) in the kitchen. Aunt Grace would hang over Nana’s shoulder which would annoy her to no end and it wasn’t unusual to hear Nana crow, “Too many pots spoil the stove!”

My grandfather was really the worst offender of vernacular. Once I made the fatal mistake of interjecting when he was speaking and was severely reprimanded, “Hey! Two heads ain’t better than one, you know!” If you get caught in an untruth, be prepared to hear, “You’re lying through your nose!” Hating to wait in lines, he’d often complain in the bank that it took him, “A month of Mays,” to cash his check. My favorite was when we had unexpected company, “So what brings you to this leg of the woods?”

Then there were the idioms that my grandfather not only misspoke, but also changed around to suit him given the situation. I would witness him at every family function approach the nearly-adult grandkids one by one, to give them his full assessment of Their Lives According to Pop. To my twenty-something cousin who was getting deep into credit card debt: “Your whole trouble is…” this was his opener for every pep talk, “Your whole trouble is, you’re digging too many holes!” Then he’d move on, working the room. He’d approach yet another one of us young adults who was trying to plot out a career and offered some advice, “Sometimes, you gotta dig a few holes.” Huh? What did that even mean? We just nodded respectfully, sipping our rum and cokes, looking for an opening to an exit.

It took many years for us to appreciate what he meant. Now we know what he was trying to say: Be careful: Don’t get yourself into a mess you can’t get out of but don’t be afraid to put yourself out there either.

My grandmother was different. She didn’t mince words. She shot from the hip – calling them as she saw them. Her cousin’s daughter became engaged to a well-to-do man. He boasted a first rate, Ivy League education. My grandmother attended their engagement luncheon and reported back. She didn’t like this guy and wasn’t impressed by his education “Send a dolt to college and you’ll wind up with an educated dolt!” Wise words, which I later quoted to an obnoxious Wharton graduate who was interviewing me for a job right after I graduated from high school. Seemed he didn’t appreciate my plans to post-pone college. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I laid that line on him, got up and left the interview. Priceless.

In her sunset years, those years past sixty-five where diplomacy and decorum are no longer a consideration, she’d change the word ‘dolt’ to something far more colorful. I wouldn’t repeat it here for fear that her ghost would reach out and smack me in the back of the head.

As a teenager, I would find myself embarrassed by their demolition of common English idioms. I don’t know what was worse – the World War II lingo or their butchering of it. Either way, I knew my friends’ parents didn’t speak like that and like any teenager, I just longed to fit in. Anytime they’d talk to my friends, I’d cringe, roll my eyes incessantly and do my very best to pull my friends away from their stories about “the good ol’ days” which was littered with a bunch of rusty mixed metaphors. I was convinced that I’d reflect back on this one day and even my memories would be in Black & White.

Now, older and wiser myself, I realize how priceless it was to have lived with them. They gave me an education not found in any university. A strong work ethic, never be afraid to get your hands dirty, a sense of humor including the ability to laugh at myself, patience, temperance, family values and a profound respect for elders.

Did I miss out by not being raised with a younger generation? Nope. The grass isn’t greener across the street.

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