Growing up in Kentucky, there are more old sayings and old wives’ tales than you can shake a stick at, or at which you can swing a cat. Today, however, I want to bring up another side to speech patterns. The pattern, habits, and stories that come from our own families.
I have been blessed, as have many of you, with two distinctly different grandmothers. Born several Kentucky miles and eleven years apart, there are parts of both of these ladies that reside so deeply within me that they are now part of my genetic makeup. They taught me so much about life, about faith, and about families.
From Granny, born in 1920, I learned that coloring your hair is not evil, playing the piano is therapy, the shoes make the outfit, and that staying up late to read a romance novel instead of cleaning house is just fine.
From Maw, born in 1909, I learned about the perfect crispiness of bacon, how to sneak around and watch soap operas, what Mom was like when SHE was a girl, and that the beautiful perennial (actually a biennial), Sweet William, only blooms every other year.
Granny was widowed at 59, and worked several years after that. I remember asking her, once, when I was about ten, at what age was she going to have gray hair like Maw’s. She said maybe after she turned 60. She finally stopped coloring her hair, suddenly, the year she turned 79. It nearly scared my then-four-year-old to death. She’d never seen this white-haired woman in her life.
She’s never remarried, and we just celebrated her 89th birthday in December. I’ll admit, after ten years, I’m still not completely used to her having white hair.
When I think of Granny, the first thing I think of is music. She plays the piano with shaped-notes, and has this uncanny knack for being able to think of a bit of song to go with any situation.
I grew up thinking that “It’s not polite to sing at the table” was an Emily Post rule. Honestly, I think my grandfather must have come up with that one to keep his own dinner table sane, considering Granny passed down that amazing knack to my father and his two siblings.
Maw was widowed in her sixties, and married my step-grandfather some years later. They lived together happily until she suffered a stroke in her late 70’s, which impeded, mostly, her ability to talk and communicate until her death over ten years later.
This lady loved to communicate. She loved talking on the phone, and she loved to tell stories of when she was a girl. And this is where those “old sayings” come into play.
Of course, “Pretty is, is pretty does” was oft recited in our home, but one that we’ve used when feeling especially saucy was, “Come in if your nose is clean, and if not, scratch under!”
I know. Silly, huh?
When Maw was a girl, this saying once caught them unaware. Back then, drifters, known more likely as “tramps” or “hobos,” would frequently go door to door, asking for handouts of food. No one thought anything of simply fixing them a plate and sharing what they had.
One summer day, she, her mother, and her older sister were inside the house doing chores, and her younger brother and sisters were running in and out of the house pestering them by knocking on the screen doors. Finally, my great-grandmother decided she’d had enough and simply sang out, “Come in if your nose is clean, and if not, scratch under!”
Imagine her surprise when she went to the door, expecting her young son or daughter, to find, instead, a perfect stranger staring back at her, hat in hand. I wonder if he “scratched under?”
From Maw’s side of the family I also got “bread and butter.”
Not the food.
This is what you’re supposed to say when you’re walking with someone and anything (post, tree, etc.) comes between you. If you don’t say it, apparently someone is going to get angry about something. Don’t ask me if it works. I’m afraid to test it. My kids just roll their eyes when I say, “bread and butter.”
“But Mom, that’s silly.”
“Say it, or somebody’ll get mad!”
Which, by then, if nobody says it, somebody IS getting irritated. So see? It works.
But I think my personal favorite is this one: “Whistling girls and crowing hens always come to no good end.” I think I love this, especially, since I’ve been whistling longer than I can remember.
Have you told your children about YOU as a kid? About their grandparents and great-grandparents? Believe me, if you don’t tell your stories first, your parents will be glad to incriminate you. I learned that from the best. Better get your version out there before they get the chance.
Take a few minutes today, or this weekend, to sit, relax, and enjoy re-telling some favorite family stories.