Like We Say Back Home, Vol. 3

Martha Rebecca Johnston Alexander

In the past couple years my mom has taught me and reminded me of a few more of my Texan granny’s favorite expressions. Some highlights:

  • Quiet as a little mouse peeing on cotton. (Usually used when someone reacts with stunned silence to some sort of diatribe or revelation.)
  • You can’t get all your coons up one tree. (You can’t get everything you want.)
  • Told them how the cows ate the cabbage. (Describes a serious dressing-down.)
  • Pitiful as a sick kitten on a hot rock. (Depressed and listless, very sympathetically so.)
  • She got her tail up over her back. (In preparation to sting, like a scorpion. Granny called scorpions “stinging lizards.”)
  • Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. (In blissful unawareness of some terrible or embarrassing thing.)
  • Put that in your pipe and smoke it. (A phrase she often used when schooling my father on the ways of my mom, i.e., the intractability of Texan women in general.)
A lot of my favorites are in the prior installments, here and here. The second one is also a goldmine of contributions from readers. 

Like we say back home

A few months ago, I re-posted some of my Texan grandmother’s expressions. Since then, my sister and I have thought of a few more that circulated in our family. Two or three are Granny’s, but more are our mom’s:

You sound like a dying cow in a hailstorm. Said to a whining child — i.e.,, when I was a kid, me — or, in the third person, about someone who can’t sing well. One of my mother’s favorites.

Looks like they had a real rip-snorter. Means a large, fun event or occurrence, but sometimes used sarcastically. My mother might say it, for instance, about the funereal group photo of the Johnstons, my grandmother’s paternal line, above.

He blinked at me like a frog on a lily pad. Said when someone is acting smug or cagey. Also Mom’s.

She couldn’t find her butt with both hands. Another Mom classic. Pretty self-explanatory.

Don’t that just take the rag off the bush? I.e., isn’t it appalling? (I never understood the derivation of this one, but found an explanation online: laundry was sometimes dried on hedges, and occasionally people stole the rags.) My grandmother’s saying, not Mom’s.

We had a real toad strangler. A bad rainstorm.

He’s all hat and no cattle. A show-off or big talker, with nothing to back up the bragging.

Don’t just sit there looking like a tree full of owls. I.e., don’t look so surprised or stricken. Said to a group.
More from readers’ email and comments left beneath my Facebook thread on the subject:

Greg Wicker reminded me of “Shit fire and save matches!” In my family, used as an expression of surprise and often abbreviated as “Shit fire!” (“Fire,” incidentally, is pronounced “fahr.”)

Michael Schaub, who recently moved from Austin to Portland, sent in a couple that are new to me but quintessentially Texan in formulation and tone: “My grandfather, from San Antonio, used to say about someone he didn’t like: ‘If I ordered a whole trainload of sons of bitches, and they only sent him, I’d accept the shipment.'” Continue reading…

Happy weekend from the possible murder victim

Whatever I paid to search the Dallas Morning News archives last month allowed me access to something like 50 articles, but only for 24 hours. So after I found what I was looking for (confirmation that one of my mom’s father’s wives really did shoot him), and had exhausted all possible searches on the subject, I typed in other Texan ancestors’ names for the hell of it.

Lo and behold, I learned that my great-grandmother Alma’s relatives once spent a couple days trying to figure out — from afar — whether she was the woman found dead and battered on a Galveston beach. (Clipping from first story pictured above.)

According to an article dated July 22, 1914, Alma had sent her mother a card saying, “This is Monday a.m. We are ready to start for dearer Dallas.” But when word of the murder reached Dallas the following week and Alma’s family hadn’t turned up — likely as not, because Great-Grampa Zone was off chasing tail — her kinfolk must’ve gotten worried. A childhood friend viewed the battered corpse, identified Alma, and fainted.

Fortunately mother Martha Caroline and sister-in-law Gertie back at home weren’t too worried. Some of the authorities’ details about the corpse didn’t really point to Alma. For one thing, the deceased didn’t have gold teeth.

“I feel,” said Gertie, “that it is not she.” (Pause for appreciation of correct pronoun usage. Gertie, I should add, was Zone’s sister. This was a family where, according to my mom, everyone, including the women, “carried a can around to spit in and after a meal we all would sit in the living room and each one would spit from time to time and argue and fight.”) And indeed, it was not.

This is so my family, I can’t even tell you. Okay, maybe I could, but I’m off to Newport, Rhode Island in the morning to celebrate the hitching of some friends.

Hope you have a great weekend planned, too.

Happy weekend from the animal hoarders

The last time I visited my mother, she had sixteen or seventeen dogs. During my high school years, there were also birds. Hundreds of them. And before she met my father, she kept more than thirty cats in a small apartment. She was encouraged in these animal hoarding tendencies from a young age. Mom was five when my grandmother, who was a single parent and worked all day, started sending her alone on the bus into downtown Dallas on Saturdays to have lunch, see a movie, and buy a pet. She came home with puppies and kittens, naturally. And there were bunnies and hamsters and turtles and fish, and God knows what all else.

Granny said there was a monkey who didn’t like to come down out of the curtains. My favorite story was the one about the baby alligator that kept growing and growing until he finally got loose in the neighborhood and was carted off to the zoo. I am not making this up.

My grandmother liked to complain about Mom’s menagerie, but she was an animal-lover, too. In the top photo, she (at left) and her sister Louise (at right) hold some puppies. Below she plays with her dog, “Bingo II,” presumably the replacement for the first Bingo, at Christmastime. And below that she’s the one in the foreground, crouching with some unnamed pooch, while her mother (who also loved puppies) holds the baby and her father waits for the photo to be over.

Happy weekend from the Delta research dept., now with Eudora Welty references

As far as I can tell, some twenty-odd years after the events of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, and about eight years before the novel appeared, my great-grandfather was hired to manage the plantation Welty fictionalized in it.

The book is set in September 1923, at Shellmound, just north of Greenwood, Mississippi. Very little happens in Delta Wedding, and apparently that was intentional. “The Delta enclave was, [the author] told Charles Bunting, ‘all such a fragile, temporary thing…. At least I hope it was. That’s why I searched so hard to find the year in which that could be most evident.'”

The book is probably my least favorite of Welty’s, but its insights into the pretensions of cotton gentility are considerable. The wedding of the title is of the plantation owner’s daughter to the young man who manages the plantation. Her family is not exactly over the moon about the match.

“Mama, I think it’s so tacky the way Troy comes in from the side door,” said Shelley [another daughter] all at once. “It’s like somebody just walks in the house from the fields and marries Dabney.”….

“Well, one thing,” said Tempe [an aunt] in a low voice to Shelley, … with a sigh of finality, “when people marry beneath them, it’s the woman that determines what comes. It’s the woman that coarsens the man. The man doesn’t really do much to the woman, I’ve observed.” This week’s photos are of my great aunt and grandmother. I believe they’re in the fields at Shellmound.

Happy weekend from the cheating husband

Robert Bruce

My grandmother kept letters documenting the fallout from my grandfather’s affair (with the woman who became his next wife). In this missive (below), he urges my grandmother to leave her parents’ place and come back to him. The language becomes increasingly unhinged and self-pitying; no doubt he was getting progressively shitfaced as he wrote. My favorite passages (typos reproduced from the original; emphasis added):

  • Tell Betty [my mother] Daddy loves her and will take her to the zoo if she comes home at once & if not she may never see me again. You took all her pictures & there are no sheets for the bed. The one on the bed now stinks.
  • I also want to find the S.B. that came down here or any other Person that keeps noseing into our Business. I may get gas & come down There. Then I am going to Bring Betty Back with me & slap the shit out of 2 or 3 C— then you can kiss asses until you are full.
  • Give Betty my love and you can have it to if you want me instead of shit.

Happy weekend from my grandfather and the other woman

Robert Bruce, my mom’s dad, sits at the far left of this shot next to Christine, the woman with whom he cheated on my grandmother throughout their short marriage. She became his third wife.

I like to think the dinner photos became progressively less grim with each of his 13 marriages.

The picture above was taken at Sivils Drive-In (below) on July 14, 1944, about ten months after my grandparents split up.

The country was at war, Johnny Tremain had just won the Newbery Medal, my mother was a little over four years old, and the “beauties on the curb” at Sivils wore some bangin’ satin shorts (second page) with their majorette get-ups.

Happy weekend from my maternal grandparents

I’ve been delving into family history recently, and my mom has been answering questions about her fascinating lothario father (above, right), who died the year before I was born. From recent email:

Daddy was married 13 times, I think: once before he married Granny, then 2-3 times to Christine…. I have a letter here from Gran [from] when Daddy was running around with her when I was a baby. Perhaps it has a last name on it. Next (I think) he married a woman named Evelyn…. She may be the one he was married to when he was shot in the gut and nearly died. I think she shot him but don’t know for sure.

Oh, sure. Back when he was shot in the gut and nearly died. . . . I’m sorry, what? Every time I think we’ve exhausted all the homicidal events my family was messed up in, my mother trots out something like this.

Earlier this week she supplemented her stories with two boxes and a large padded envelope full of family photos, letters, assorted official documents, and other genealogical paraphernalia. I’ve spent the last few nights digging through all of it. I feel like a kid snooping through drawers, except I’m finding all the good stuff, and no one’s going to round a corner, flick on the light, and ask me what the hell I think I’m doing.

In lieu of the old Friday sign-offs, which I’ve been missing, I’ll post favorite pictures and whatnot for the next few months. As with all my personal ramblings, just skip ’em if you’re not interested.

The picture at the top of this post is of Mom’s parents. (Larger version here. According to the decorative cover, the photo was taken at Dallas’ “Italian Village,” 3211 Oak Lawn. Rooting around online, I found a postcard ad that says the place was “famous for spaghetti and big steaks with Idaho baked potato.”) Looks like a real rip-snorter of an evening, huh?