Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Family Legends and Sayings

I recently bought an iPad2 and, among other things, looked forward to a Facetime video chat with my brother Mike. He called and we worked on coordinating our email addresses and making our video visit a reality. At one point, as I fumbled through the set-up process, I could hear my brother sigh over the phone. Then he said, chuckling, "Just push the little button, baby!"

I stopped, relaxed and laughed. This saying goes way back in our family, actually before Mike's birth. It dates back to the time when I was two years old and, for reasons known only to my toddler self, would rush into the bathroom, shut the door and push the lock. For a short time, I would prance around, giggling and gleeful at my own cleverness. Then I would decide I wanted out. But the door wouldn't budge. After trying the door unsuccessfully several times, I'd start wailing, falling to the floor in anguish and despair. Through the door, my father would say "Baby, push the little button. Just push the little button, baby." More often than not, I'd stay on the floor, wails escalating to screams. And my father would finally get a ladder, crawl through the bathroom window and free me once more.

To this day, at any signs of cluelessness on my part (and there have been many), someone in the family will say "Just push the little button, baby!"

Then there is the legend around Mike: when he was a toddler, he dismantled everything from the toaster to the telephone. For years, even after Mike had been out of the house for decades, if father found something falling apart or broken, he would shout "Dammit! He's been working this over!"

During a recent visit, Mike's daughter Maggie was concentrating intensely on removing the knobs from all my lower kitchen cabinets. The minute we spotted her, Mike and I turned to each other and said "Dammit! She's working it over!"  He quickly intervened and stopped any further dismantling of my kitchen.

For my 30th birthday, my father gave me a cassette tape he had made from an old reel-to-reel recording containing an exchange between the two of us that had become a family legend.

I was three years old and Father had come up with a great idea for putting me to bed. Reading one bedtime story was never enough. So, to save time and aggravation, he decided to set up his tape recorder, read and record a story and then play it in an endless loop until I gave up and fell asleep. As he was about to start, I asked if I could tell him a story. What followed was an endless narrative that covered family history, world events, gossip I had picked up from my mother and little known facts (and fables) about various types of animals.

At one point, right in the middle of an impassioned story about my Uncle George's death in World War II and my mother's anguish on hearing the news, I stopped and asked my father "Do you want me to tell you about turkeys, too?"

"Yes," my father said. "But only after you finish telling me about the war."

And I went on...and on .. and on...until my father's soft snores resonated in the background. The tape ends with my childish voice saying with increased urgency: "Father, wake up! I want to tell you another story about when I was a baby! No more stories about animals, I promise!"

To this day, whenever I am going on and on, or have started a major tangent in the middle of a conversation, my brother or sister or husband will ask gently "Are you going to tell me about turkeys, too?"

One particularly standout legend is more primal. Mike is 3-1/2 years younger than I and, for all of our childhood, I heard "Don't hit your brother! He's smaller than you!" I obeyed the orders, but inwardly created an inventory of anger and frustration, telling myself that when he grew up a little more, I was going to get him and get him good.

The moment came when I was 16 and he 13. It arrived as we argued about drawer space in the tiny bedroom he, our sister Tai and I all shared. To make more space for himself in a communal drawer, he had thrown away my treasured diary, but not before reading and memorizing key segments and reciting them back to me. I lunged at him, ready to slap him, when he caught my wrists and held me at bay. I had waited too long! My baby brother was stronger than I! Enraged, I wrested my right hand out of his grasp and, in doing so, accidentally tore the cuff of his shirt. Suddenly inspired and shrieking like a banshee, I began shredding and ripping his shirt off his body as our six-year-old sister sat at our feet, shaking with sobs because she had never seen me angry. By the time our parents arrived to mediate, the shirt was in tatters and we were starting to laugh, well on the way to being friends again.

But to this day, if I look at him a certain way, Mike will put his arms across his chest protectively and plead "Please don't tear my shirt. It's the only good one I have."

Sayings and legends help us to laugh and love together through all the seasons of our lives, connecting past with present, underscoring our cohesiveness as a families, warmly linking what was and what is. Thanks to our memories, our stories, our philosophies that have grown through shared experience, we can work together through momentary annoyances and gently remind each other when we talk too much, are clumsy or clueless.

These life-enhancing legends may live in families of origin or between long-married couples. My husband Bob often wonders how those who are widowed or divorced after long marriages cope with building a whole new history of in-jokes, verbal short-hand and life stories with a new partner -- and where and how does one begin?

The in-jokes may be incomprehensible to another, based as they often are on a moment in time, a shared memory of a time long past, the very fabric of a relationship that has survived so many changes and so many years.

Our family legends, in-jokes and sayings are as irreplaceable as the people who share these with us.


  1. These are so funny and endearing! I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. We have a few of those saying in my family, and now they have been passed on to the next generation who weren't even born yet when they happened, but it doesn't diminish the gusto with which they say them.

  2. What a rascle you were and this was such a delightful post. I love the inside jokes our families share. They bond us forever in such a special way
    Arkansas Patti.

  3. Absolutely love this oh so true post. We have sayings that have been passed down through generations...many said by my Grandmother Elsie. We call them Elsieisms, although I would bet that she remembered sayings and stories from her parents. My daughters carry on...

  4. I love those moments, that only family "get" or inside jokes that bring back memories. You got some really funny ones there and I had to smile reading this post.
    Have a great day!

  5. We have a few of those in jokes in our family, quite a few actually. Some seem sad now. Julie hated to stuff the celery and complained she was always given that job, so of course we always did. Now, we can't even begin to prepare celery for a Thanksgiving dinner or some other occasion without crying as soon as the celery prep begins.

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  7. You're right, every family has those tales. One thing I love about Facebook is that my daughter posts those funny conversations that my granddaughters have and it helps me stay connected to their everyday life. Once when I was home alone with a three year old granddaughter she demanded up and down cheese for lunch. When her mother got home I found out up and down cheese was grated cheese. We all call it up and down cheese now.

  8. Kathy, this was a delightful post. I smiled throughout and at the end I sat here for a while remembering the "clue" words my family would say to one another. And the endearing stories we'd tell. To this day, my brother knows what to say to "wind me up." Then I see that twinkle in his eye and know I've been had!

    Thank you for bringing these memories back to me.


  9. I think all of us have family "sayings" or phrases that pop up years later. I know mine does, too, and I just love them. (Though some have bad grammar, and you have to be careful when you say them, lest someone not "get it" and think you're illiterate! This is a delightful post -- I love the turkeys, and I love Push the Button Baby. Both are so perfect!

  10. My mom had a constant theme-saying.

    At the breakfast table she would say, "Ron, two things: I wish I were rich and don't have kids."

    The last part popped up later in life and cost me four years of couch time. I gave my therapist a musical pillow that had "Tell me about your childhood" embroidered on it and the music box played Streisand's "Memories".

  11. Thanks for sharing your childhood memories.

    I remember the time when I was surprised that I could no longer "handle" my brother in arm to arm combat. I was 10; he was 11 or 12.

    I sounds like you and your brother are passing these stories down to the next generation. I'll be sure to tell my girls what I've been reminded of, too. :)

  12. I was smiling ear to ear as I read this. Loved it. As well, I remember when I could no longer beat my brother. I was 13 and he was 12 (or 11). I could beat him handily at wrestling until the day I couldn't . Still the stuff of family lore.

  13. I love the little inside family jokes. :-)


  14. Thanks so much for all your kind comments! I'd love to hear more about your own family sayings and legends, though I'm so sorry, Ron, that the saying you remember was so hurtful to you. That's great that you got therapy and thought to give your therapist such an imaginative gift! It undoubtedly meant a lot to her. I have some small gifts from former patients that I treasure greatly.