At Home With Vivian: Up a Creek

It’s been hotter than blue blazes this week! We need another scorching week like a hole in the head. I wish it were a little cooler, but like my mother often said, “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.” Holy Toledo! I’m channeling my mother. Well, isn’t that a kick in the head.

The other night my husband Jeff read a proverb in a newspaper, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.” I liked the nice play on the old adage, “You win some and you lose some”. That phrase called to mind some of my parents expressions. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” or “Like two peas in a pod,” and “Now we’re cooking with gas!”

After church on Sunday, during donuts and coffee, I shared some of my parents’ expressions. Even though the coffee drinking parishioners of St. Catherine’s grew up in different parts of the country, we found that our families shared many of the same sayings. Our parents threatened, “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about!” “If you’re bored I’ll find something for you to do!” “Close the door! Were you raised in a barn?” “If so and so jumped off a cliff would you jump too?” “God gave you a brain. Use it.” And the definitive parental answer to any argument was “Because I said so.” You know what? These were such effective idioms that I used them on my own kids.

Idioms are used in every language on earth according to my friend, the internet. They are phrases that paint word pictures and create humorous mental images to make our communication richer and more robust – more memorable too.

My mother often used the expression, “When my ship comes in.” I can still see her sitting on the couch, leafing through the Spiegel catalog. She’d fold back the pages in such a manner that the edges stuck up like page markers. “Did you find something,” I’d ask. Mama would sigh, and reply “Yes. I’ll buy it when my ship comes in.” I knew that meant she wanted it but didn’t have the money to purchase it. But why a ship?

When I asked, Mama laughed. She said that her father used that phrase a lot while raising eight kids during the depression. He learned it from his parents who had thirteen children. The phrase originally came from England during the nineteenth century. While sailors were at sea, tradesmen would extend credit to their wives until their husband’s ship, and his paycheck, returned. When asking for credit, the wives would promise to pay “when my ship comes in.” My mother was in her late teens before she realized her father did not own a ship.

We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, but if it was something important, like new shoes, or a school field trip, Mama would say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” or “God willing and the creek don’t rise”. When I heard her use those phrases, I knew somehow the money would be found. But if I heard her mumble, “money doesn’t’ grow on trees” then all bets were off – unless she said she might “rob Peter to pay Paul.”

When my grandmother came to visit, she wasn’t used to wiggly little kids. Grandma would look exasperated and then say “Have you got the heebie-jeebies?” Grandma wasn’t mad. She just wanted us to sit still. Jeff looked up that phrase, heebie-jeebies, and found that cartoonist Billy DeBeck, famous for the comic strip Barney Google, coined the phrase in a 1923 in a cartoon published in the New York American. Mr. DeBeck also coined the phrase, “Horse feathers!” A more contemporary phrase for heebie-jeebies might be “She’s as “nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!”

I was one of those kids that loved to hear adults talk. I’d sit quietly while my mother and her sisters gossiped. They’d tsk-tsk about someone with a problem and say, “She’s up a creek without a paddle”, or they’d shake their heads and declare about a miscreant that “He was going to hell in a handbasket”. Sometimes they’d rant about someone who annoyed them. “He’s as dumb as a box of rocks. He’s two bricks short of a full load!” or “His elevator doesn’t go to the top floor.” My favorite phrase was “The lights are on but no one is home”. When I heard my mother shush her sisters and then say, “Little pitchers have big ears,” I knew she’d just realized I was listening. That phrase comes from early 16th century England and the allusion is to the ear-like handles on pitchers. For years I thought she was talking about pictures and imagined the art on the walls listening.

Did you get the same life lessons I did? “Get your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable!” or when I started a sentence with “Hey!” my mother would say, “Hay is for horses.” Did your parents reply to you with “Yes, you can. No, you may not.” To this day I can’t say the word ‘assume’ without hearing my mother saying, “Don’t ASSUME. It makes a you-know-what out of U and ME.”

Waving a lit cigarette in her right hand, Mama would look us right in the eye and say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” She started smoking to be ‘cool’ when she was twelve years old and couldn’t quit. Thankfully we girls did as she said and not as she did and never smoked.

Mom was a firm believer in “birds of a feather flock together.” It was her way of saying that people with similar interests usually bond. That sounds nice unless she was referring to someone categorized as a “ne’er-do-well.’ “You’re judged by the friends you keep” she’d warn. Heaven forbid if she knew your friend’s parentage. “Like father like son” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” could be good or bad. If I shrugged off her advice, then she’d sigh and say “To each his own.”

Jeff remembers his mother using a few sayings too. When he hesitated too long – she’d say “Pee or get off the pot!” If he complained, she’d answer with “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” If he had trouble finding something in plain sight she’d declare “If it was a snake you would be dead.” If he was out ‘til the cows came home, she would ask, “Did you take the slow boat to China?”

My mother had more colloquial sayings than I can get into this column. Plus, she had a few original ones I called ‘Mom-isms’. My favorite was, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

My niece Susan remembered a few of her ‘Dad-isms”. When driving behind someone who stopped at a yellow light Stan would say “The sign says yield! Not give up!” When his kids asked how much something cost, he always answered, “A dollar three eighty.” When asked what color something was, he would answer, “Sky blue pink”. Susan said she never knew where he got the phrase “sky blue pink.” Then, one evening after her father passed away she was sitting on the porch and as the sun sank below the horizon the blue sky graduated to a stunning pink. Sky blue pink. Can’t you see it too?

“I see, I see, said the blind man”.

And that’s the rest of the story. Now you know! And knowing is half the battle. Who’da thunk? That’s all for now, folks! Catch you on the flipside.

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