Thursday, February 3, 2011

The secret languages of families

If you zoom in on this image, you'll see what made me stop in the middle of the road to take it: a wild turkey. She was crossing here to catch up with a flock of 8 or 10 other birds. We still have wild turkeys in Florida. In my younger days I often saw them across cut fields of pine forest, as I walked quietly behind a friend or family member armed with a bow or a black-powder rifle, for turkeys are notoriously suspicious and easy to spook. I haven't told you these stories yet? I must remember to write these, my loves. For now, my only sightings of wild turkeys are along roads, in places turkeys only find themselves because of encroaching development. It's part of the contrast of Old Florida and present-day Florida and a reminder that there are really very few years dividing the two.

This is an aside, of course. My central topic calls back to my past, but is more cerebral than primitive. It's about the language of a family, crafted slowly and almost unnoticed over the course of years and still emerging, despite the fact that our boys are mostly grown. There's magic here, for you almost certainly have a story just like this. It is the magic of love and family and continuity.

When I talk to one of my best friends on the phone today, I often use a greeting phrase like, "Hello, my little plum blossom..." or words to that effect. This is thanks to my girlhood and lifetime friend Carrie O'Hare Hogan, whose greetings included fruit, the more obscure, the better. She would call and say, "Hellooo, my little persimmon", or " little kumquat..." or something like that. After we were both married and had taken our husbands' last names with some reservation, she always greeted me on the phone with, "Hello, Mrs. Christensen", to which I always replied, "Hello, Mrs. Hogan", and these greetings entered the lexicon.

When Dylan was quite small, perhaps four years old, we were driving down a street in St. Augustine, overarched by golden raintrees that actually were wet with recent rain. When a heavy shower fell from the branches and splashed on the windshield, Dylan said calmly, "THAT wasn't very welcoming." It sounds so silly. But we burst out laughing and those words have been part of our family's secret internal language ever since. We say it whenever anything surprises us just slightly with its unpleasantness. Dylan is also the author of a beloved family slur that evolved from his unexpected use of the word "bonker" as the most devastating of insults. This was leveled at me when he was really angry: "You are a bonker poo-poo Mommy." Well. Ahem. For a couple of months I endured this from both my sons; it still surfaces now and then.

In local parlance, The Man Who Came to Dinner is referred to as The Movie. Other families have their own versions. Ours provides a taste of the pleasure of holiday reunions across time and distance. We only have to hear, "You are the moonflower of my middle age and I love you very much" to feel as though turkey and sweet potato pie are about to be served, a warm fire snuggled up to, and soft laughter of friends and family about to envelop us.

Other movies have shaped our language. We've never quite recovered from The Emperor's New Groove, which gave us our standard exchange when a possibly painful challenge is expected to be welcomed defiantly:
Person 1: "Sharp rocks at the bottom?"
Person 2: "Most likely." And then, in unison,
"Bring it on."

Thanks to Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson, who brought to life the character of Blackadder and his dogsbody, Baldrick, new ideas are introduced in very bad British accents with the words, "I have a cunning plan". This falls into the (credit to Monty Python) "say n'more" category. And in recent years, Madagascar, courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen, gave us, "Shut UP, you're so anNOYing!". Since about 1990-something when we saw the movie Black Sheep, the word road when pronounced "row-addddd" reduces us all to helpless laughter. Actually I suppose that doesn't really constitute an addition to our family language. I just put it in here because I know it will make my family laugh. There are others, some more profane and some more obscure. I imagine there are more yet in your houses and hearts. Do tell what they are.

As a good-night postcard, here is the view to the west from Mane de Leon Salon. It was a beautiful sunset. I hope you enjoy it, despite the camera's inability to compensate for what the human eye does with so little effort. Between you and the sun is the Intracoastal Waterway, sunlight reflecting on the shimmering water.


  1. I love your writing and I miss you. Do you remember "sun here, sun not", courtesy of Master Dylan, if I remember correctly.

  2. This is great stuff. MY WIFE and I often joke about our many secret catchphrases and how the staff at our future nursing home will think we're utterly demented when we say them and start laughing with each other.

  3. Jackie, I do indeed remember "Sun here, sun not", which was Dylan's matter-of-fact observation when he was, what 2 or 3? I'm so glad you like the blog and I miss you, too!
    Mr. Sullivan, once again, thank you for your visit. I imagine we'll all be at the same nursing home, with those same caregivers exchanging puzzled glances and shrugging as if to say, "Yep, yep.Utterly demented."


Please share your thoughts. If you have trouble getting past the gatekeeper, email and let me know.