Mimicry is one of the many skills I don’t possess. Even so, the people I’ve known over the course of my life have made their mark on me, and I hear it in the expressions I’ve co-opted from them.
I’ll always recall from my childhood with affection and a sense of loss my father’s “Hello, Tiger.” But he had another, dictatorial side. When my brother or I were in trouble, we’d find ourselves stammering, “But I thought…” Dad would snap, “I told you before: Don’t think.” A retort such as “Think before you leap” didn’t occur to me. Fortunate, because it would only have increased the punishment to come. On reflection, I’m not sure “Don’t think” is quite as arbitrary as I used to believe. To pause to think can be to hesitate when what should be done is obvious.
My mother loved playing with words. “Concentrate” became “consecrate,” as in “I need to consecrate.” The back pain from which she suffered was “rheumatics.” I’ve since understood that turning pain into an ongoing little joke can help make it manageable. I only wish I’d better appreciated what Mum was going through when rheumatism hit her.
Uncle Norman, who spent nearly his entire life in our hometown of Darlington, County Durham, in England, would say, “Oh aye”: two gentle, Darlington-accented syllables that expressed both surprise and respect. It wouldn’t sound right if I said it, especially now that I live in the United States, where it would make me sound strange. But I sometimes hear him saying it in my head when I nod to show I’m intrigued.
When learning of some silly caper, Auntie Maureen would call you “Silly monkey.” It’s a shame that racists have co-opted our relatives in the animal kingdom for a malignant purpose because I smile when I envision her grinning as she called me on my folly. Monkeys were charming, at least so long as they were in zoos, on television or in pictures in books. Today, whom do I accuse of being a silly monkey? Me, of course.
A college roommate would arrive at our dorm singing in an unaccustomed bass voice Edwin Starr’s line, “War, huh, yeah, what are you good for?” For “war,” I apply the question to a host of imponderables: “Spratt, huh, yeah, what are you good for?” “Talent, huh, yeah, what are you good for?”
In the case of a law school classmate, “It sucks” wasn’t damning enough. She’d add two words: “It sucks dead frogs.” The funny part was that the two words made an already meaningless phrase even less objectively meaningful. Since that time, “It sucks” hasn’t been good enough for me, either.
A Latino friend utters “Mm mm mm” in a tone of wonder, as in, “Let me think about that.” My wife will say, “Would you prefer rice or potatoes when I make dinner tonight?” I’ll sit there and deliberate over two equally appealing options: “Mm mm mm.”
My nephew would grunt “Yuh” to such questions as, “Would you like another glass of water?” It should have been rude, and not just because it wasn’t followed by “Please.” It turns out that an expression of appreciation doesn’t depend on the “Please” formula. Now, grunting “Yuh” the way my nephew did recalls a seemingly happy-go-lucky man who died before time had any right to claim him.
The influence of family and friends on how I express myself can make me question to what extent I’m truly an individual rather than an amalgam of other people. These influences come from my English childhood, my years of schooling in New England and my decades ever since in New York City. How different would I be had I grown up in, say, Alabama and spent my adulthood in Iowa?
Take religion. Because religion is generally deemed private in the places where I’ve lived, I’ve been free to come to my own terms at my own pace with it. By contrast, during my summer working in rural North Carolina, religion was in the air. My coworkers were mostly politically liberal in a sea of conservatism, but religion was a preoccupation no matter what their political bent. At times, religious inquiry could be intrusive. I’ll never forget the woman who tried to convince me that if only I opened myself up to Christ, my sight would be restored. Had I grown up in such an environment, I might well have turned out fixated on religion, whether as a devout churchgoer or reactively hostile atheist.
It isn’t only geography that suggests how we might be different. Had I lived centuries ago, I would have accepted feces-strewn streets and public hangings as facts of life. Time and place do help determine the outlines of our minds and characters.
As do family and friends.
The expressions that friends and family have stamped on my brain are a mild, beneficent influence. Almost all of them are amusing, at least to me, and suffused with, yes, love. Even that angry edict of my father, “Don’t think,” has migrated over time into affectionate family humor, a wondrous process in its own right.
Along the way, friends have reinforced my better self. My “what are you good for?” college roommate gave me an expression to deflate my own self-importance, while my law school classmate’s “sucks dead frogs” guided me toward acceptance of absurdity.
Happily, the capacity of friends to influence me continues. Recently, a friend stopped by with his six-year-old daughter. I’d just started telling an anecdote when I realized it was unsuitable for a child’s ears. I turned to her father and began, “I almost…” Knowing exactly where I was going, he said, “I live my life on the edge of ‘almost.’”
How many times have I not just arrived at, but actually tipped over the precipice of “almost.” Shall I count the ways? Now, at least, “I’m on the edge” might pop into my head and forestall the descent.
Note: This YouTube clip of Darlington, County Durham speakers is far from ideal, but it’s the best example I could find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Us6gqSns5UY.
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