Relatively Speaking

For as long as I can remember, my family has had a sort of secret, unique language—ok, more of a vocabulary I’d say. I can’t imagine that I am the only one who could claim this, especially among my southern friends since southerners just automatically affix their own twists to words and sayings or at the very least they change the pronunciation of words. And I say “change” the pronunciation, because saying “they pronounce them wrong”—well, that would just be rude to someone’s grandmother somewhere, and I don’t play that game.

Being part of a family with a deep southern history spanning several generations comes with glorious opportunities to be exposed to a diverse cast of characters, each one of them only strange to your friend who is “visiting from Connecticut,” but never to you or anyone else on the family tree.

You have no trouble understanding them and their special dialect. When they use a word that doesn’t fit, you immediately know what they mean, and merely pause over the mishap while others are still perplexed. I’ve even had to say “he means…” and then launch into a quick round of Password and exchange a confirmation nod with the confused.

For example in my family, the word “salmon” has an “L” in it. It just does. They use the letter “L” in “salmon” with pride like lesbians use the letter “L” in the word “lesbian.”

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a perfectly good letter. It’s there. Why not use it?

When I was a kid we had “Sa-L-mon patties” and we ate canned “Sa-L-mon”–we didn’t call it “Sa-mon” and we didn’t eat smoked “Sa-mon”—as in smoked salmon and bagels. Oh who am I kidding? We didn’t eat bagels either.

We ate biscuits. The only thing I knew that existed for breakfast that had a hole in it was a doughnut. I walked twelve blocks for a bagel in New York City once under the recommendation of a friend and afterwards my exact words to her were, “We walked twelve blocks for this?”

You bagel-lovers please don’t write to me. I promise I won’t care that I offended you, and I’ll probably just write an entire blog entry about biscuits and pussycat gravy next week out of spite—but anyway, back to my point here…

My daddy, for one, comes with a unique ability to ardently and “creatively” pronounce anything that isn’t written on the sports page. In fact, he pronounces his order at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant so effectively he can’t even identify it when the waiter comes to deliver it. The poor waiter, standing at the end of our table with his asbestos glove, holding a dish that has been baked in Satan’s oven, calls out, “Burrito Fundido? Burrito Fundido?”

Finally as his shirt sleeve is igniting from the heat of the 900 degree plate he’s holding the waiter desperately shouts “Burrito Fundido!” My mama asks my daddy, “Don, what did you order?”

And with all seriousness, and with absolutely no sense of urgency to the waiter whose sleeve is now smoking he answers, “I don’t remember.”

The waiter, slides the molten lava burrito in front of my daddy, and then, I’m sure, he heads to the nearest burn center.

One Friday night my daddy looked at the waiter and, with conviction, ordered the “Burrito Sayonara” –yes, as if he was saying “goodbye” to his Japanese burrito.

There had been some idle chit chat going on at the table up until we heard the words escape his mouth, and we all rushed to his rescue like he’d accidentally called the waiter a racial slur.

“He means the ‘Burrito Sonora!’ ”

My daddy looks at us all confused,“That’s what I said, Burrito Sayonara,” as the waiter giggled his way back into the kitchen.

Luckily, the waiter had a great sense of humor, and when he delivered our dinner to us moments later he put my daddy’s in front of him and announced with a grin and the perfect amount of smart ass, “Burrito Sayonara.

To which my daddy turned to all of us and said, “See there! I did say it right.”

My daddy’s talents for foreign language do not just hang out south of the border, he’s quick to give us a giggle when he orders Chinese food as well, because he likes his meal to come with, not a bowl of “wonton” soup, but a piping hot bowl of “wong-tong” soup. My mama and I actually wait for it, and have to stifle our nose snorts when he says it.

For fear that someone thinks I’m picking on my poor daddy, I’ll move on to others just as deserving. My grandmother, for instance would complain that going to the grocery store on a day when they predicted snow in the Atlanta area was nothing but a “fiesta!

Of course she meant “fiasco,” but fiesta sounded like so much fun and also sounded like a margarita might be involved—that we all adopted the term. To this day anything taxing for any of us in my family gets labeled as a “fiesta,” and we laugh because, well, sometimes we wish it was.

My grandmother was also fond of “parm-eee-zian” (parmesan) cheese on her “I-I-Italian spaghetti.” She ate “Vi-eeena” (Vienna) sausages and saltine crackers and liked “Si-men-eeze” (Siamese) cats. In fact, we’ve jokingly used the word, “Si-men-eeze” so often, I have to be careful not to actually mispronounce “Siamese” when I see one.

These little nuances of individualized language are just one of the little joys a person gets to keep after you’ve said goodbye to your parents or grandparents. They stay with you, similar to the ones small children make when first learning to talk. You immortalize them, along with the people who used them, and somehow that memory and that special word or pronunciation gets to remain alive– as that person does– in your heart. And the best part? They are never, ever negative recollections.

My grandfather loved to visit any restaurant that served “cafeteria style,” and his next favorite thing was to tell you about his meal in vivid detail. I really think he enjoyed that part more than the food.

“They had the best trout a la mode you ever tasted!” He’d offer us. And if one of us said, “You mean Trout Almondine?” He’d nod and reply “Yep, trout a la mode,” without hesitation.

He was great at providing us with little idioms over the years, even ones that weren’t funny except for how literal they were–like the time he pointed to the page on a menu and told my mama to order him a “various wine,” because well, that’s how they were listed on the menu. Couldn’t fault him on that one.

One of the best parts of having toddlers in your life is some of the funny things they say. Several of which end up being permanent parts of a family’s vocabulary. My nephew frequently asked for a “cock-in-tail” for himself when my mama would pour herself a glass of wine in the evening, and referenced his full tummy after eating to feeling like he was gonna “romit.” To this day, that term is jokingly used after every big family meal at our house. Imagine my husband’s surprise, years ago, when his co-worker told him that she was flying home to India to get married and showed him a picture of her handsome fiance, saying his name was “Romit.” –sometimes life just has a shameless sense of humor.

My son, Rooster, used to love Cracker Barrel restaurant when he was a tiny boy. Anytime we traveled we’d stop for a meal, and he’d pop his head up from the back seat, see the familiar orange and brown sign, and say with such delight…

“Crackhead Barrel! I love Crackhead Barrel!”

Poor Cracker Barrel restaurant never knew how the mistreatment of their beloved name offered us such laughs just as sure as it offered us delicious chicken and dumplings.

In fact, one of my greatest fears is to end up as one of those seemingly forgotten relatives hanging on the walls of Cracker Barrel. Every time we eat there I think about it, and I find myself looking around at the old black and white photos wondering whose grandparents they are, and how their picture ended up there instead of on the dining room wall of some loving relatives’ home. Did they say “trout a la mode” too? Did they eat “Vi-eeena” sausages and saltine crackers? Did they have funny words or phrases that are still being used fondly by their younger relatives today? Can those relatives still hear their voices and their expressions in their heads? And more disturbing, how did my 3-year-old even know the word crackhead?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know that Cracker Barrel doesn’t serve bagels, or “cock-in-tails,” or any “various wines,” and I’m usually so gloriously full after eating the biscuits and gravy or a big bowl of the chicken and dumplings that I wish I could…quite frankly…“romit.”

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