This is Major Pam to Ground Control

We roar, with the rest of the audience, when he ambles onto the sparsely set stage–there’s a fancy wooden chair with velvet cushions, a carved side table with a cut-crystal water pitcher and a gentleman’s cigar smoking paraphernalia. Ten feet away or so from that stands a wooden podium, also ornately Victorian.

He wears the cream-colored suit and the crazy white wig that brand him Mark Twain. And he greets us nonchalantly, picking up a cigar, trimming its end. Then he launches into a caustic tirade about politicians in Washington, DC.  He is bitterly funny.

In the first act, he wanders around the stage and from subject to subject. Tucked into the pocket of his creamy vest are half sheets of neatly folded paper; I imagine lines and columns of tiny cramped writing, etched in fountain pen. Sometimes he will meander to the podium, pull out the sheets, flatten and rearrange them, harrumphing.  We hold our breaths. Is this part of the act? Or–has he just simply lost his place, befuddled?

But he juts his chin insouciantly at the audience, clears his throat noisily, takes a big swig of whatever is in that cut glass tumbler.  And then he embarks on a tirade about Presbyterians. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, if that little blank space was a personal lapse or a character-driven moment.

After the intermission, he picks up one of the old books from the stack on the table, strokes it fondly, and talks about his writing, and then launches into recitations. By the end of the show, he IS Huck Finn, twelve years old or so, shuddering with sadness on stage, fighting back the tears, torn between his duty to convention and his care and compassion for his friend Jim.

With the rest of the crowd, we jump to our feet and pound our hands when he is finished, roaring in appreciation for the show put on by Hal Holbrook.

Who just turned 91.

Sometimes, I will wake up in the morning, totter into the bathroom, and surprise myself by my reflection in the mirror.

“Holy shit,” I will think, startled, half-awake, into vulgarity. “You’re OLD!”

I am not quite sure how that happened so quickly, but random aches and pains, the crepe-iness of skin in certain geographical territories, and the unwarranted deference of youngsters, support the fact that indeed it has.

I have spent the better part of the last thirty years thinking, “Okay. When we just finish THIS episode [when the degree is earned, or the program identified; when we find the house or settle into new jobs, or when we do whatever]–when THIS brouhaha all calms down, THEN I will….”  I have a whole series of endings for that sentence, including organizing every cluttered space and thing in my extremely cluttered life, writing a book, learning to sew, and digging my paints back out of the plastic bin where they are buried in the basement.

Suddenly I realize that if I don’t DO those things now, I maybe–or probably–never will.

Life looks a little different through 61-year-old eyes.

This morning, I am having coffee with my friend and colleague Jeannette and Jeannette’s mother, Mary. I’m writing a story about Mary, who is 83, for a paper called Senior Times. Jeannette happened to mention, recently, that her mom went for a plane ride with our young colleague Phil last weekend. As the story unraveled, I discovered that Mary is a pilot. In their yard back in Kansas, back when Jeannette and her sisters were growing up, there was a dirt runway. That accommodated the four or five planes Jeannette remembers Mary having, the planes that she remembers skidding to stops on the gravelly dirt strip—just a fact of their lives in Kansas. An airstrip was to them like a driveway is to us: just the place you park your everyday transportation.

What the heck, eh?

Now Mary, who takes commercial flights quite often, who lives by herself and has a sweet little fur baby and goes on cruises and audits college classes and reads history voraciously, is losing her sight. And she mentioned to Jeannette that she’d probably never get back up behind the controls of a personally-piloted place, never again see the blaze of changing trees, the rivers twisting through our town, or the corn turning gold from the air.

Phil got wind of that, and up they went, he and Mary and Jeannette’s daring seven-year-old granddaughter. Despite disclaimers and denials, Jeannette is pretty sure that, for a significant part of the flight at least, it was Mary who was flying that plane.


I think about some other folks I know.

My widowed mother-in-law, Pat, has embraced the independent life thrust upon her in her early 80’s. She has fixed up her house and taught herself to use technology, and she just recently got a laptop so her computing could go mobile.

Wendy’s neighbor Joan just turned ninety. She showed up for her party with hair died a bright magenta. Why not? she asked the applauding crowd–Joan has a lot of children. And she ruminated that now, when things are finally starting to settle down, NOW would be a good time for her to start to do some traveling.

Larisa’s mom turned 90 this week, too. She celebrated the passage with a tasteful tattoo. She thinks she might just get another.


And think about this. There’s a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara–Christopher McDougall made them famous when he wrote about them in his book, Born to Run. McDougall was searching for ways to become a runner who didn’t endure various, constant injuries. He found the Tarahumara, who, often barefoot, just keep running. This people, an article on a site called Before It’s News tells me, are unconcerned with aging.

Or maybe no one ever told them they were supposed to slow down when they get older.

Some of the best Tarahumara runners are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Certainly, they don’t stop just because age encroaches.

Oh, all this consideration of age makes me ponder; it makes me ponder and search, English teacher-y, for a metaphor. And so I think that maybe, for women at least, aging is like the stages of a rocket-ship and its journey.

Childhood is assembly time: we gather our parts together, constructing ourselves, getting ourselves into working order. The chemistry of our compounds and the dynamics of our daily lives mold and shape us.

As teens, we launch, blazing, into a dense, thick atmosphere, where the friction of our frantic flight shapes us for the journey ahead. We jettison unnecessary parts. Some trappings of childhood fall away and burn to ash in an incendiary atmosphere.

And then we reach Space, where, after taking the time to calibrate our instrumentation, we insure the path chosen is the one we’re ready to take. There’s orbiting involved here. There are bold adventures into places, too, where no woman has gone before.

There are times when being beamed up becomes a necessity.

But it’s a rich journey, and its adventures are unexpected and enlightening in so many ways. We travel. We adjust. We encounter challenges and wonders.

And then one day we careen around an unknown planet and we can’t decide if it’s beautiful or frightening.

‘What IS that place?’ we ask our version of Bones.

‘Why, that’s Menopause,’ she answers in surprise. ‘You’ve been plotting this course for a good while.’

And we travel on, but something has changed; the urgency to explore is ebbing. Instead, we feel a need to go back to a safe, quiet place where we can spread out the treasures acquired, the lessons learned, where we can sort wisdom from folly and make sense of it all. Slowly but inexorably, we head for the re-entry that is the years of aging.

Like launching, re-entry burns things away.  We jettison, again, things that are extraneous: we need our lightest possible load for the return journey.

The long trip doesn’t always leave us intact. We may have glitches in our systems–they may be minor, and we may be able to ignore or accommodate them. They may be major and irreversible, and they may derail our re-entry plans.

Our computers, our brain centers, may have been affected or impaired. We call in every damned Scotty we can think of. We fight to maintain.

And sometimes we make it through, battered by our travels, but ready for the next stage that life affords us. A journey is not complete, after all, until the destination is achieved. Until it’s been examined and assessed.

Oh, ours is not a culture in love with old folks.  Sometimes they are discarded, ignored, or dismissed as ineffectual.  And yet.

Yet, there is Pat, sharing posts on Facebook, sending greetings to grandchildren whose lives have taken them to far-flung points on the map.

Yet there is Mary, flying over the golden fields of corn. I picture her dipping a wing, saluting something that, while still there, has quietly grown and changed.

There is Hal Holbrook, his talent and his memory bank crammed with wit and message, and the ability to enthrall and entertain still strong.

There is a 90-year-old woman with magenta hair, dancing. There is a tattooed great grandma, drawing her family tightly around her.

I think of these people, alive and making an impact, and I know it is no time pack things in.

And there is stuff to be done. We do not know the number of our days, but we know what we should be doing with them.  And I know, waking to being in my 60’s, that there’s no point in waiting any longer.  THEN has now arrived.

Today, I think, I’ll get started on sorting a little of that clutter.


Let Go, Let Go, Let Go



I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.


As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.


I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.


Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

Musing About Food and Cooking, Again: Apron Memories

Quick—who and what first comes to mind when you think of an apron?

I’m thinking about aprons because Terri Mercer, in her role as executive director at a very special organization called First Step, sponsored an activity, asking folks to write and share their apron stories. Terri challenged us, on Facebook, to think of our own apron memories.

(First Step, by the way, addresses domestic violence, but its practice is unique. It works with men as well as with women and children, looking at the family as a unit. It employs female and male counselors. It was the first program in Ohio to design and build a shelter to meet its clients’ needs, rather than trying to adapt a house. It was one of the first organizations to help males who were victims of domestic violence, too. Ground-breaking, brave, fascinating work–I shouldn’t be at all surprised that this organization has fascinating workshops and activities. I discovered they have a great website, too, if you’d like to take a look:

But. Aprons.

I am a lover of metaphor, and aprons, in my lifetime, have been a metaphor. In my earliest days, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, every woman needed an apron. As I grew into young adulthood, and the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s rocked and changed our world, aprons began to symbolize ties to an unfair bondage–as in ‘Untie your apron, Sister, and fling it aside! Embrace your independence!’ I picture a woman going in one door wearing an apron, and coming out the other in a pinstriped suit, her rolling pin traded for a briefcase.

And now…at least in my life, at this stage, aprons are back–not a symbol of a return to some kind of domestic drudgery, but as a badge of practical, protective warmth and nurture.

I remember ratcheting into my mother when I was very young, three or so, short enough that my head bounced against her apron. It must have been a Sunday; I clearly remember Mom’s dress, one I loved–navy blue with white dots, long sleeves and white collar and cuffs. It was classy, and it was protected by an apron because she was, no doubt, cooking Sunday’s chicken dinner.

I got a swat for my careening, and a revelation–bouncing off Mom on Sunday was like bouncing off a basketball. The apron hinted at softness, but underneath, all was firm and bouncy at the same time. It was Sunday, so of course Mom had on her panty girdle. It held up her stockings; it held in her stomach.

Mind you, I don’t think my 5’4″ mother ever tipped the scale at more than 125 pounds in her life; she was not (unlike, sadly, her daughter) in need of that kind of restraint. But girdles and aprons were part of a woman’s wardrobe, and that was what she wore.

I think the panty girdle is a much better symbol of a time when women were tightly conscribed than an apron ever was.

My mother made her aprons, mostly, cranking them out on an old Singer treadle machine, a machine outdated already in my childhood. She said she liked it because it could handle heavy duty jobs, like patching the knees of our jeans. I suspect she liked the ease of it and that it was a piece of furniture, always ready. Unlike a portable electric machine, the treadle didn’t have to be dragged out of a closet, set up on the dining room table, taken down again in time for dinner. Projects in ‘mid-sew’ could be left on the treadle and returned to when a hole opened in a busy household schedule.

Mom’s aprons were of the lap variety, tying in the back, covering from waist down to knees. She made the ties of one color, and the rest from bright prints. She added matching or contrasting pockets. Her aprons were colorful and fun.

I, of course, did not like them then; I wanted a full body apron, one you had to stick out both hands to slide over your shoulders. My Aunt Annie wore that kind. My mind’s eye sees her in a blue calico print apron with navy blue trim–whether that’s an apron Aunt Annie ever owned or one embroidered by memory, I’m not sure.

We moved from my comfortable little home town to the grindy little city next door when I was in fourth grade, and for a time, nothing–especially me–seemed to fit. I remember the art teacher in my new public school telling me to bring in an apron for art class. I brought in one of Mom’s half aprons.

“What’s THIS?” the teacher asked, holding it up by its waist tie, and then, seeing my crestfallen look, she backed off. She got me an old shirt and had me put it on backwards. It was soft with age and covered with paint splots; it smelled of talented, oil-based, creation, I thought. I folded up the apron and put it away at school. At the end of the year, I took it home, unused. My mother washed and ironed it, and used it again immediately.

In junior high home economics, we made our own aprons. Mine was clumsily sewn, but I liked the colors and the style.

And then came high school. I walked into high school in a carefully selected skirt and blouse, with panty hose (still, at that time, a fairly recent innovation) squinching my waist, Mary Janes on my feet, and a purse that matched my outfit slung over my shoulder.

I walked out of high school four years later in torn jeans so long my heels walked wear spots in them, wearing a faded army jacket, and carrying a backpack. Why would I need an apron? My classmates predicted jokingly that I’d take over the reins of Cosmopolitan from Helen Gurley Brown.

Stuck in the kitchen? Please. I had, you’ll excuse the expression, bigger fish to fry.

Funny, though, how Life turns around and smacks one in the head–sometimes with a nice, nerf-y bat, and sometimes with something a little bit firmer.

I will not, I proclaimed, teach or type for a living–I will not be stuck in a job reserved for women by a patriarchal society. I will not go willingly into that oppressive female ghetto.

Five years after college graduation, I was happily teaching middle school Language Arts at a wonderful little intercity parochial school. During term breaks I painstakingly typed final exams on my portable Olympia typewriter, index finger stroke by index finger stroke, for other teachers and for extra money.

But I still didn’t have an apron.

Well, I did have one, but I never wore it for cooking. It was a gift from a friend so close to the family she could have been an aunt, Mrs. Mary Muench; she sewed the apron in a tiny flower print in shades of peach and brown. It fell below my knees and tied around my waist, and was so dress-like it covered my butt in the back. It had ruffles around the bodice, and it looked like a GunnySack dress. I loved GunnySack dresses, and I wore Mrs. Muench’s apron like a funky tunic.

In those days of trendy handmade and repurposed clothing, I could wear that beautiful apron over jeans and a deep brown turtleneck and look like I was making a fashion statement. I would not have dreamed of getting food splatters on that beloved garment.

So there I was, in my ‘second wave of feminism’ passion, teaching school and typing; then I married Mark and cooking joined the list of darned-near daily occupations. We had a close galley kitchen in our first house with an enormous old seventies brown earth-tone stove. In that tight space, on that vintage appliance, I cooked family meals and company meals, baked birthday cakes and everyday cookies, experimented with wondrous dishes like eggplant pizza and a haphazard quiche or two for the real men in my household.

I will not be chained to the kitchen, I allowed, and then I enjoyed the artistic and creative challenge of trying to take our budget and stretch it to feed a family with tasty, attractive dishes. Not owning a single item of daily worn clothing that couldn’t be thrown in the washer, no apron was needed.

Matt grew toward teenager-hood; Jim was born. Time flew. We moved, and moved again. We invited family and friends to celebrate milestones, and I did a lot of cooking on those celebration days and washed a lot of dishes. I remembered my brother Denny, always man enough to help, shlepping into my kitchen on Orchard Street and starting the water for a sinkful of suds.

“Got an apron?” he asked, and I didn’t; he wound up tucking a dishtowel around his waist.

Fast forward to today; if Denny were here now (and how I wish he was!) I could offer him a choice of aprons. Now, Crisanne, with whom I work–although she will retire this summer–has a gift of cloth creation, and thanks to Cris, I have an everyday apron and a holiday apron. They are things of beauty, but I don’t hesitate to let them be splattered with food.

I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In fact, when I done with this essay, I am going to try a new recipe in my quest to make a peanut butter cookie as tasty as the ones I can get at Starbuck’s in Erie, PA–a Reese Cup cookie that I really do go far out of my way for–and that the Starbucks in Ohio don’t seem to carry. But today, in 2014, it is trendy to be ‘cook-y’, to think about the food we eat, to craft our meals from fresh ingredients.

Feminism–in its third? fourth? wave– has embraced nurturing…with the stipulation that men can do it, too. It’s okay to cook and bake and play with grandkids, to plan and execute company dinners, to sew, and to decorate tastefully. It’s okay to focus on home.

Of course, all those things always were okay; we may have done them apologetically; we may have gone about them in a clandestine way; but we never once considered not doing them. And the apron is the perfect metaphor for that, so ever present in the fifties and sixties; lost or hidden in a drawer during the social revolutions of the last part of the 20th century; proudly rediscovered in these latter days.

Terri’s simple challenge–tell us your apron stories–delves deep.

I’ll bet you have an apron story, maybe about the early sensory memory of cookies baking and a warm lap; about your first cooking experience; of hefting that turkey out of the oven the very first time you plated a Thanksgiving dinner. Is there, in a drawer somewhere, an apron sewn by hands so dear to you that you just can’t part with it at all?

Oh, here’s to our aprons; to the meals and memories we’ve shared; to the meals and memories yet to come.

Oh, the sayings we say…

James and I were navigating a Walmart parking lot shrunken and obstructed by huge piles of snow. I nudged the car around a last drift to see a peace officer outside of his car talking with a woman who was waving her arms and yelling.

“Oh, dear,” said Jim.

“Oh, DEAR,” I echoed. Then without thinking, I added, “Bread and beer. If you were dead, you wouldn’t be here.”

There was a silence as we crept around the cop and the angry woman. Then, “What the heck was THAT?” Jim asked.

He was referring to the bread and beer, not to the police situation.

I started to explain that we used to say that, back in Dunkirk, New York, when I was a child in the 1960’s. And then I thought, wait. Is that true? Maybe that was something my mother used to say, something that came over from Scotland with her.

I don’t remember, but the singsong rhyme was so deeply entrenched that it came loping out of its own volition, triggered by the right words, the right tone, the right situation.

The words we use don’t always come from our thinking minds.

The week of the bread and butter intonation, my colleague Susan Markel was teaching a sociology class. It was the first session after an unexpected day off–a snow day, of course–and Susan was explaining that the class would NOT have the exam scheduled for that session.

“Good!” piped up a happy student. “Can we go home?”

Susan gave him the look. “Wouldn’t that be a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” she asked.

The class looked at her in horror. Who throws a baby out with bathwater?

The session surged on, and the last hour approached, and the hopeful student raised his hand. “Do you think we’ll get out early today?” he asked.

“We are staying,” replied Susan, “till the last dog is hung.”

The students froze. Not only did this professor throw out babies, she hung dogs. Susan took a little segue to talk about language. The dog expression was one her mother always used, and it just came hopping into consciousness when the situation called for it.

Isn’t that interesting, I thought when Susan shared that with me. If only those phrases survive our reign on earth, imagine what the future’s archaeologists will think of us. Beer-drinking lunatics who threw out their infants and terrorized their dogs!

I decided to ask other colleagues if they had ever run into sayings that were, in their minds, appropriate, but fell short of impressing their students.

Executive Dean Mike Whitson remembered introducing a fascinating bit of information to a college class made up of mostly of high school students. “Look THAT up in your Funk and Wagnalls!” he told the group, and the young students, Mike said, got that deer-in-the-headlights look. Not only did the expression come from Laugh-In, a show that was popular well before the students’ time, but most of them had never heard of Funk and Wagnalls. For that matter, any dictionary in book form is not really a tool in students’ repertoires, these days.

Math instructor Sam Griffin shared a story about trying to get his thirteen year old daughter to move a little more quickly. He advised her to get the lead out, and she looked at him askance.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard that before,” he said to her, but she hadn’t. Sam, a scholar as well as a gentleman, decided to find out where the expression came from. His research showed that it is from an old horse racing custom. All jockeys were required to weigh the same amount; the lighter riders were weighted with lead. Around the corner, where the judges might not see them, they’d pitch the lead weights so their horses could soar even more quickly. And ‘get the lead out’ quickly came to mean ‘move faster’.

Another colleague, Karen Jones, warned her students against beating a dead horse, grossing them out completely. That saying goes back to horse racing, too, where jockeys would drive their poor nags to the utmost exhaustion, then use their crops to exhort them to get up and go further. Sometimes, though, the horse couldn’t get up; sometimes, it was dead.

Oh, the things that we say without thought and from habit!

I used to make my English comp students write their own metaphors after examining the ones we use all the time. Fill in the blank, I’d say. Happy as a ________.

LARK! They would all reply, and I’d ask them what they knew about larks. Hmmm. They didn’t know what larks looked like, or whether they were particularly happy birds. Someone thought they sang a happy birdsong, and that kind of made the saying make a sort of sense.

I told them we used to say “Happy as a clam,” and they hadn’t heard of that. I told them about one of my glamorous jobs (the kind of job that keeps you in college, hoping for, someday, the kind of job that doesn’t support you through college) in a supermarket meat room. My early morning opening task was to see if the clams were still alive. They’d be sitting in the meat case, shrink-wrapped in plastic, wide open. I’d go down the line, tapping lightly on their little shells.

The ones that closed were still alive. The ones that stayed open–well, those went into the bin. But honestly, the dead clams looked just as cheerful as the live ones. Happy as a clam, indeed.

So let’s write our own metaphors, I’d exhort my students, instead of relying on sayings we don’t even think about. And they’d come up with good things:

Happy as a kid on his birthday.

Happy as a girl who gets what she wants for Christmas.

Happy as the class when the bell rings for summer vacation.

Happy as a dog with a nice meaty bone.

Happy as a hunter walking home with his catch.

Excellent, I’d encourage them. Keep using that kind of creative language and you’ll make me so happy!

Yeah, said a student from the back–happy as an English teacher with a pound of good chocolate!

Oh the power of good language. That would be happy, indeed.