|An inheritance of words
||[Dec. 7th, 2012|09:36 am]
In talking about religion, lack thereof, and how that relates to morals, a friend asked me, so if your parents never used Jesus, or God, as a motivator to do the right thing, never used heaven or hell or Satan, what DID they use? We'd already discussed that physical punishment was never used, and the only threat or consequence I remember at all was that if you didn't finish your dinner, or at least try a bit of a new thing, then there wouldn't be any dessert, that the plate would be still waiting for you in the morning, occasionally the spectre of starving children in Ethiopia or Mongolia (logistically impossible to send the food to, my parents rightly sensing that we'd leap to box it up and send it to Boise or Savannah), although I still remember those as vague threats, I never remember them being acted on. Of course, I was also a very rule-abiding child and generally sucked up to adults...oh, I'm sorry, I meant did the right thing, by nature. |
So what was my motivator to do the right thing? To give active disobedience a pass?
Yep. That was it. Disappointing my parents. Letting people down. Someone trusted me and I BLEW it. Shame. Vibrating down our whole lineage for centuries, I'm sure. Moue of disgust? I'll bet there's a baby picture of me somewhere that shows I mastered that facial expression before I could walk. Taught at the cradle by my mother and grandmother. My family was the positive example. But we had plenty of negative examples -- things you never, ever wanted to be, or be called. Because we had a name for every bad example there was. And they were great names, words burgeoning with judgment and disapproval. I didn't always know what they meant, but I sure as heck knew I didn't want to BE them.
I didn't want to dress like a SLATTERN. Which is full of meaning, but to the child-me, it meant not wearing a bra. I also didn't want to dress like a SLOVEN. That was stains. Or a house could be SLOVENLY. ::shudder:: My mother kept a spotless house and I can remember babysitting for someone who had what was a fairly clean house...but I came home and reported that there was some dried tomato sauce on the stove top and some dishes in the sink. My mother actually gasped. Going out for the night with a stain on the stove, dishes in the sink? (To be fair, my mother has loosened up dramatically. Working full time and dealing with a house full of animals dragged her bar down to slightly more realitic levels. Although I still have to clean for days to prepare for a visit and then pretend that I didn't have time to do more than a quick vacuum.) Seriously, if the woman hadn't died an early death in a car accident, I'd still be sending her an annual apology card for judging her. Christ on a Dobie Pad, when I consider my house clean, it's still FILTHY.
FILTHY was really bad. Your house, or your language, maybe your clothes. But filthy seemed permanent in a not washing off way unlike dirty which could be solved with soap and water. And you know what filthy children raised by slovenly mothers had? IMPETIGO. Poor things probably just had a scrape on their faces from playing or running into the jungle gym, but golly me, you did not want to associate with those children because it was contagious. Like RINGWORM. Which was always said in a low hissing tone. Look, I spent half my childhood scratching my butt, infested with pinworms because I ran around barefoot playing in yards back in the day before anyone picked up after their pets, so really, we shouldn't have been doing any judging...but certainly to a WASP family, things you could not see were never as bad as things you could.
Or hear. Because you never wanted to yell like a FISHWIFE. I thought it was deliciously ironic that later in high school, one of the parts I played in Storybook Theater was The Fishwife. And I yelled. Although I was never sure what quality, exactly, a fishwife should bring to the yelling. I went with scales in my throat. I was far more comfortable playing Turkey Lurkey and Raven, where I was on famliar ground.
Or run around like TINKERS' CHILDREN, or be a family that traveled like GYPSIES, both of which could be inferred as slurs on the Romany, but mostly just meant dirty and unsupervised in the case of the former, and having fast food trash and maybe too many pillows in the car, in the case of the latter. And we should take care not to grow up and blossom into HOOLIGANS, which carried just a vague sense of being UP TO NO GOOD.
In theory, you'd be fine if you had been REARED properly. Because children were reared, corn and cattle were raised. And TRADESMEN. Although my parents, being from a generation that never had servants or maids, and still feel a little odd about hiring someone to clean the house and take care of the lawn, never managed to wield that as an insult the way my grandparents did. (To be clear, the English/been here since the Mayflower side of the family. It was always a bit of an embarrassment that the German/Danish side were FARMERS. And one branch of the family, delighting in being farmers again here in America, were WEEHAWKERS, which had something to do with wearing overalls and not taking the New York Times.)
At the table we were never allowed to leave the table without asking permission, and you were never full, never stuffed, never had enough. That was RUDE. We didn't have a fancy word for rude...it was almost a curse word in our house, so like all curse words, the power was in its abruptness, its curtness. No, in order to the leave the table you had to be REPLETE. May I be exused (I think we had wooden blocks that taught us the diference between CAN and MAY), I am replete. Which sounds weird, still, but actually conveys the meaning -- I have had enough -- better than just having a gut full of provender. Enough of it all: food, talking, sitting politely, adults, everything. Mother, I am one wafer thin mint, or one more question about schoolwork, away from exploding.
Don't get me started on BIG AS A HOUSE, which was going to happen to me if I had another cookie. And couth, I never heard of anyone who had couth, but reaching across the table to snag a cookie, not to mention allowing my elbows to touch the top of the dinner table, was UNCOUTH. And we were never allowed to hate someone or something. That was also UNCOUTH and only TRASH used the word hate. We were allowed to DISLIKE SOMETHING INTENTLY. Which to this day may explain why I have a hard time holding a grudge, or getting mad about minor offenses. Disliking something intently requires focus and intention...and you sort of have to hold still and think about it, unlike the blind, raging miasma of hate that you can just wrap around you and go about your business.
Back then, it felt like a mental corset sometimes. On the other hand, if words were weapons, my...rearing...left me with an arsenal that'd make a survivalist want to be my best friend.