Our father, that quintessential man of few words, did make the occasional pronouncement when we were kids. Every Christmas morning we knew he would proclaim, “It looks like old Santy was pretty good to us this year.” It must have irked our mother whenever he yearned aloud, “I’m hungry for cornbread and beans like my mother used to make.” And we all knew we had best head for the door any time he thundered, “Go outside and get the stink blowed off.”
Oh, he brought back several Americanized phrases, including “donkey shay” for “thank you,” from his war years in Germany and sometimes used the title of a war song as a mealtime grace, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” Otherwise, his disciplinary expressions were clear enough and stern enough to spur us to action, sooner rather than later.
Quite the opposite was true of our mother. While our father was busy in the barn or the field, the whole bunch of us – wild and woolly as we were – spent much more direct time with Mother, a fact that regularly drove her to distraction and prompted all manner of expressions.
I always figured the goal of Mother’s discipline was to talk us into submission. Her hallmark phrase, “And another thing…” allowed her to remind us of the entire inventory of our sins and shortcomings during seemingly-endless lectures.
There was, however, a unique aspect to her motherisms. We always knew exactly why she was yelling at us, having heard those utterances often enough. But hers was quite the fascinating collection of mind-bending phrases if analyzed literally.
Our incessant inquiries about the when and the what of the evening meal annoyed Mother to no end. When we whined about catastrophic hunger one time too many, she would snap, “We’re having stewed cats and pickled rats,” our signal to leave her alone at the stove to tend her boiling pots and frying pans.
Just think about that menu. I never once considered that any piece of cookware contained a cat of any breed or a rat prepared in any manner. To be sure, we would have run screaming from the supper table if felines and rodents had actually appeared on our plates.
On a more possible note, however, out of sheer frustration at the end of a long day of mothering, she also often promised toothpicks and water. It sometimes crossed my mind that she might just plunk a platter of toothpicks down in front of us along with a nice, big pitcher of well water. It never happened, although she eventually refined the recipe to “pine floats.”
The mention of body parts crept frequently into Mother’s preachings and teachings. Naturally she joined every other exasperated mother to chastise offspring when important information went “in one ear and out the other.”
But our mother was even quicker to keep us in line by shouting, “I’m going to butter your ears and swallow you!” She never carried out that threat – whatever it meant. The six of us are still around, complete with clean ears properly attached. The image alone, though, could have been unsettling if we had really thought about it.
Mother and many of her cohorts often cautioned the children of America that scowling faces were sure to freeze that way. However, our mother went the extra distance to warn that the protrusion of a pouting lip was an open invitation for any chicken looking to roost.
Probably Mother’s most intriguing suggestion to kids fighting over places to sit was one she borrowed from her father, “Sit on your fist and lean back on your thumb.” Although I groaned when I heard that phrase, I did love the rhythm of it even as I contemplated its physical possibility.
Mother had her own special reprimands that referenced general locations. Whenever confronted with our toys strewn all over the living room, she employed “hither, thither, and yon” in her get-this-place-cleaned-up-now tirades. And she immediately refuted any argument a rebellious child might dare to raise with, “That’s neither here nor there!”
There were a couple of expressions I eventually came to understand and even appreciate. For the picky eaters in our sibling set, Mother often used a phrase bordering on the psychoanalytical, “Oh, you’re just afraid you might like it.” That comment was tailor-made for the night a stubborn sister sat at the table for hours refusing even to taste the asparagus with hollandaise sauce Mother had prepared. As an adult, I have applied the absolute wisdom of her assertion to a variety of situations.
And is there any better statement during an argument or in politics, for that matter, than, “It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other!”? Now that is a declaration perfect for settling disputes in the classroom, on the playground – or maybe even in Washington.
Only our mother could accuse us of “mounging around” when we complained or of “frummydiddling” when we wasted time. Only our mother would point out the folly of our feeling “hard done by,” insisting instead that we were “making a mountain out of a mole hill” and that we should “scratch our mad place and get glad.”
Yep, that was our mom. She was the most articulate disciplinarian I ever knew. To my way of thinking, today’s world sorely needs a few more such taskmasters.