My mother had the oddest dialect I have ever heard, even for a Northeasterner where odd dialects are the stuff of legend. She was raised in Berlin, New Hampshire, and spent some years in Boston as well. Although she traveled a lot as a young woman, wherever she went she took with her the sound of the Granite State - even more, I think, than the usual native.
I have a pet theory about dialects - they're not passed on from parents to child, but from peers to child. In other words, the speaking patterns I use I learned from the schoolyard, not the home. Consequently I do not speak like my mother or father. (Dad was from Brooklyn, and while many years of absence removed most of the "dese-" and "dose-"type pronunciations, he still pronounced "forest" as "farest," and "porridge" as "parrage.")
But back to Mom. Like many New Hampshire natives, she emphasized the broad-a sounds: "caahr" for "car," "Bahsten" for "Boston," etc. Normal, commonplace stuff, really. What made Mom unique was some additional habits and speech patterns:
- She frequently dropped the -ed suffix from words. What comes to mind most frequently now is her admonition to "Get dress" before going out to a local restaurant on a Saturday night.
- Inarticulation at length was another feature of Mom's speech; she would sprinkle conversations with "Oh, I don't know" and pauses, as if making up her mind about something but never, in the end, being able to decide.
- She had a curious habit of ending sentences with words like "too," "though," "anyway" and "either" even when it didn't make sense for those words to be in the sentence. For instance, out of the blue, "You have to admit JFK was a handsome man, though," as if she were waging an argument in her mind about the matter, and suddenly decided to speak out about it. "...and it wasn't cheap, either" was a frequently-voiced opinion about a cheap piece of furniture she had bought - once again, as if in response to an internal challenge.
- Also curious was what I called "the reversible opinion." Let's say, for instance, she was invited to share her opinion about Las Vegas lounge singer Wayne Newton. A typical pattern, using all of the above, would be this: "Oh, I don't like him. He's just... I don't know. (Pause.) He's a sissy - all those clothes... And his voice isn't much, either. I don't like him. (Longer pause, and here's where the reverse comes in) "He's a good entertainer, though." That was the kicker; just when you thought she was speaking definitively on the matter, she changed her mind at the end. Which sort of reflected her mercurial nature about other things, like major purchases.
My dad told me once about an embarrassment with an encyclopedia salesman. (The fact that she'd even consider buying an encyclopedia floored me. She didn't like books and once, in her seventies, confessed to my amazement, that she hadn't read a book since she was eighteen.) She had listened to the salesman's pitch about what value this particular set of encyclopediae possessed, and stated that she had silver dollars to pay for them. For the salesman it looked like he was about to make a sale, and then... something happened. When pressed to sign an agreement or contract, she refused, then angrily picked a fight about something or another - obviously an excuse to renege. (I remember her doing this to me many times about promises she had made.)
Either she was acting (she frequently acted dumb to amuse people), or she had a complete inability to pronounce some words. Near where we live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. is a Maryland city named Bethesda, obviously a name pulled into service from the scriptures. Mom couldn't pronounce this word at all, let alone remember it. First, there was the matter of taking a "th" sound (as in "thorn") and transforming it into something else. And then words with "a" endings were transformed somehow into "er." For instance, her friend Thelma was called "Talmer." So "Bethesda," when she remembered the word correctly, was "Betasder." (Once, memorably, it was "Bathsheba.")
Her swearing was something to hear, too. Growing up, I heard her call Dad all sorts of vile things, but the most frequent was "bastid." Once, when I had placed a basketball in a urinal in a school boys room and was enthusiastically pulling the flush handle, the janitor (Mr. Derrick, who would later become a much-needed mentor) walked in, saw what I was doing and said, "You bastard." Was I afraid? Not at all. What was running through my mind was, "Is that the same word as 'bastid?' Who's pronouncing it correctly, I wonder, Mom or Mr. Derrick?"
Another title for my poor father was "Som'bitch." One word, two syllables.
Mom's sister Shirley, though, won the award for the most memorable expression. Imagine this one being uttered from a big (she must have weighed at least 300 pounds), sweaty woman wearing a muu muu: "Seventy Jesuses!" Her smoker's voice and disgusted tone are impossible to recreate in words, but you can imagine the additional effect. Shirley and her husband had the curious habit of writing with the assistance of a ruler. I always wondered how they got the lines in their letters so impossibly straight; Dad told me that writing with a ruler was a "Cod-throttler habit." (Dad called people from Massachusetts and New Hampshire "cod throttlers" - his term for a hick - and once, when we were digging through Mom's old photographs, held up a snapshot of a relative of hers holding a fish seemingly by the neck. "See? See?," he asked gleefully.) Another sister of Mom's came out to visit once, and Dad got a lot of mileage out of her amazement at palm trees, which she had never seen.
Obviously I didn't learn coarse words and expressions exclusively from Mom (or Dad - he was no slouch, either); there were other sources. The old man and his wife next door to us, Edith and Bob, used to curse at each other loudly and often, right in front of me as I played in the back yard. The most frequent retort Bob would use on his long-suffering wife was, "Blow it out yer ass!" Hearing it as often as I did, I didn't think there was anything particularly wrong with it, as kids are wont to think. So when Mom told me to leave her and her guests to go clean up my room ("Go pick up your room" was the exact phrasing, to which I would respond by trying to lift the doorframe), I thought nothing of responding "Blow it out yer ass!" I can still recall the stunned expression on her face to this day, and I must have been only five or so when this happened. Her look told me then that I had wandered into forbidden rhetorical territory.
I wouldn't return there until I was about fifteen, when Angela DeTolla introduced me to the satisfaction of muttering "shit!" in response to every situation. (The other angelic expression I recall was uttered by this staunch Democrat during the televised wedding of Tricia Nixon to David Eisenhower: "Look at her! That piss-bitch!") But I digress - back to Mom.
Mom was nothing if not an enthusiastic conversationalist. Outgoing and opinionated, she made friends easily. I recall driving home from Busch Gardens near Williamsburg, Virginia to Springfield, Virginia after a long, long day with three kids, Mom and my wife. I figured she'd probably drop off to sleep. No way. She kept up a running commentary for the entire two-and-a-half hour trip. A lot of it was punctuated with stories about celebrities she had read about in "the papers" (The National Enquirer, The Star, The Globe, etc.) She was an avid reader of tabloids, much to Dad's dismay when she'd leave them lying about on the living room bellows table for visitors to see. ("Here, Wes, help me hide these.")
Dad and Mom fought constantly, and sometimes Mom would become somewhat tongue-tied, which, of course, Dad would use to his advantage. Once, when my wife Cari and I were at a restaurant with them, she disgustedly muttered during an argument, "Wes, if you never opened your mouth then people would never realize how stupid you are!" (Making a shambles out of the old saying "Better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.") Dad simply smiled and responded, "Could you say that again, Madeleine?", and Cari and I couldn't help but laugh hysterically.
Another time, another restaurant: Dad is sitting in the booth with us with a piece of carrot sticking out of his mouth like a tongue. Cari and I are trying hard not to laugh, Mom is mortified at his behavior. "Wes, you ack so stupid!" she said. (She often dropped consonants at the ends of words, so "act" became "ack.") "Well," he said, "I'm only acting."
The word "stupid" was used in our house a lot. "I guess I'm jus stupid!" Mom would say (dropping another consonant). Another habit of hers was to challenge all assertions of fact with "How do you know?" A friend of mine came up with a retort that I was too polite to ever use: "Because I crack open a book every now and then!"
Looking back, it seemed that Mom was angry a lot of the time, and punctuated her angry words with angry actions. Heaven help the dishes if she was washing them while engaged in an argument with Dad. The loud clinks and bangs of china against the porcelain sink indicated her taking her anger out on the plates, and, indeed, I recall that most of our dinnerware had big chips and gouges around the rims. Once she even flung my prized mechanical Mickey Mouse alarm clock at Dad, missing him but putting a gouge in a wooden door. (To this day the clock doesn't work properly and hasn't ever since. Mickey's head is supposed to bob in an even "tick-tick-tick" in conjunction with the movement of the escapement, but instead drunkenly goes "tick... tick... (pause) tick-tick-tick.")
Life was Mom was never dull, and today, despite the fact that she passed away years ago - 1995 - Cari and I still relate these stories fondly.
You can hear my mother's voice as she narrates some of our old home movies. I recorded this in 1987.
Mom's life prior to meeting my Dad and giving birth to me was always something of a mystery. Click here to read about "Mom Noir," and her shadowy involvement with (imagined) mobsters.