Tag Archives: father

Bonus Post: Three Dads, One Person

My father had three names. No, I’m not talking about the three names that most people have, though he had those too: James Robert Coburn. But the names he went by were sometimes different.

He was born in Kentucky, the youngest son, so of course everyone referred to him as Jim-Bob. His relatives always called him that. In fact, when I went to his funeral service in Kentucky (he had one in Ohio, too), I had to remember to introduce myself to various mourners as “Jim-Bob’s daughter.”

When he went to work at a government job, people called him simply Jim or James. I still remember that when he went off to work, he wore a tie and shiny black shoes and smelled of Vitalis and Aqua Velva. This is the mental picture I still have of him when I was a child. When he drove us anywhere, my mother would say, “Home, James,” as if he were our chauffeur. (And since my mother didn’t drive, I guess he was.)

His straight-laced, government-approved persona changed when he retired on a medical disability. He struggled against multiple myeloma for nearly 15 years before he died. (I hope there are better treatments now.) He went back to his roots then, again taking on his Jim-Bob persona, though none of his relations were around to call him that. He started wearing jeans, plaid shirts, sneakers or boots, and often a cowboy hat. He wouldn’t shave for several days at a time. I think his spirit felt better then, even though his body kept on betraying him.

When I was in my teens, he acquired his third name, and it was my doing. There was one room in our house called “the sewing room,” where my mother kept her sewing machine, piles of fabric, and jars of buttons. I suppose these days it would be called a “craft room,” as my father often set up a card table there and went about his hobby, reloading spent brass, using a hand-operated device to resize the cartridges and seat the lead and primer. I think he enjoyed the process more than the idea of being thrifty. (He made the bullets himself by melting lead and squeezing them in a mold. My mother made him do that part outside. But I digress.)

Those were the days when a house had only one telephone, and ours was located in the sewing room. This provided little privacy when I was talking on the phone with one of my friends, as teens are wont to do. My father would often kibitz, making little remarks based on the one side of the conversation that he could hear. Every so often, I would say, “Melvin, you keep out of this,” which was an oft-repeated phrase on some TV show or other.

The name stuck among me and my friends. I introduced him that way so often, some people were surprised when they learned he was ever called anything else. (I suppose this was part of my maturing process, when I wanted something to call my parents other than Dad and Mom. My mother acquired the nickname Muzz, for equally obscure reasons.)

Far from getting upset or claiming we were disrespectful, he embraced the name Melvin. (Once he had a leather keychain made, and the name was forever after spelled Melvyn.) It was even included (in parentheses) in his obituary just so my friends could figure out who died. This mightily pissed off my sister, who never acknowledged the nickname.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know about my father, especially his service in the Army in WWII, but this I do know: His Melvyn persona was the one I liked best, the one with which I was able to connect more deeply, and the version I carry with me to this day.

(The picture that heads this post isn’t a very good one, but it’s as good a way as any to remember him. It was taken at my wedding reception, after he had shed his much-loathed tie, which at least he wore for the actual wedding ceremony.)

The Parents Who Didn’t Read and the Daughter Who Did

Everyone knows that the easiest way to raise a child who reads is for the entire family to read. The child should see the parents reading, lots and often.

But that’s not the way it happened in my family. Oh, my folks could read; they just didn’t.

I never remember my father reading anything when I was a child. He got his news from the television. He might thumb through an issue of American Rifleman at the car wash. But he didn’t read books while we were kids.

(Later in life, when he was bedridden with bone cancer, a family friend who worked for the library would bring him bag after bag of Zane Grey and Max Brand and Louis L’Amour novels, which he devoured. But I digress.)

Despite the lack of reading that went on in the house, there was always plenty of stuff to read. Little Golden books and Bible stories at first. I learned to read at my mother’s side, as she read storybook after storybook to us girls. Although she didn’t read for herself, she read for us.

My sister read some. Being a very literal person, every year she would start to read Under the Lilacs while sitting under the lilac bush in our backyard. (I don’t know if she ever finished it.) When she reached the horse-mad stage, she read Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and anything else equine-related she could get her hands on. Her reading tastes were largely satisfied with that.

I think the thing that turned me into the voracious reader I am today was not the example of my parents, but the sheer amount of literature that was available. Our parents purchased sets of children’s books. (I can’t remember what was in that series now besides Under the Lilacs and Uncle Remus Stories, which gave me fits with the dialect.) We had collections of Nancy Drew books and Tom Swift books.

My mother had a subscription to Reader’s Digest, but I don’t remember her reading it, or the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that sat in fat rows on our bookshelves. When we weren’t making Christmas trees of the magazines by folding the pages, I read them and the Condensed Books. That’s where I acquired my taste for true adventure, I think. It’s not that big a leap from “Drama in Real Life” to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I first discovered To Sir, With Love as an R.D. Condensed book, then devoured everything I could get my hands on about teaching, my career goal at the time.

We also made extensive use of the public libraries and the ever-awesome bookmobile, since my parents’ middle-class income couldn’t keep pace with my reading tastes. And there were used book stores, too, where I could swap a grocery bag full of books for another.

There was no way my parents could screen my reading matter, so they didn’t even try. I didn’t receive a very balanced reading education or a very sophisticated one. I read whatever interested me, from novelizations of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to histories of Russia. I discovered Dr. Seuss and The Hobbit and Erma Bombeck. “Serious literature” I got from school, but love for reading came at home.

Having parents that read is a good thing, and no doubt it does help turn some children into reading mavens.

But if you ask me, letting a child explore reading at her own pace and through her own interests can be as effective as any planned course of literature or example of parents perusing the Great Books.

It worked for me.


The Year Our Christmas Presents Changed

Our family Christmases were idyllic, if simple. Each year on Christmas Day, we would all open our presents. My sister and I would get doll clothes (this was when you got outfits, not multiple Barbies) and plush animals, Spirograph and paint-by-numbers, and such.

Then we’d get dressed, jump in the car, and drive to Granny’s house, where we’d open more gifts of clothes and stationery and Avon cologne. We’d wreak havoc on a turkey and trimmings, before the adults went off for naps, after dropping us kids off at the movies.

Then came the year when my sister and I had to grow up fast.

My parents had always tried to keep any bad news away from us and carry on as normal, but there was no hiding this bad news. After being accidentally hit by the garage door, my father’s injured neck turned out to be something much worse than a sprain, strain, or contusion. It wasn’t the garage door that caused it. of course, but that was when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

It’s a horrible form of cancer that attacks the bones all throughout the body and destroys them. I hope the treatments have gotten better in the decades since, but for my father cancer meant radiation, chemotherapy, and an operation to fuse the bones of his neck using bone from his hip. He lived many years longer than the doctors predicted, which I attribute to his stubbornness. He certainly wasn’t a health aficionado.

Naturally, all those cancer treatments and hospitalizations were expensive. My parents had good insurance, but even that was nowhere near covering the costs. And my father’s illness was not something my parents could keep secret from us kids, much as they would have liked to. It affected every part of our lives.

When Christmas came that year, I was 15 and my sister was 16. My mother explained that because of the family’s medical expenses, we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas as usual. No driving from Ohio to Kentucky to see our relatives. And no Christmas presents.

Except one.

My mother said that all we could afford was a magazine subscription for each of us. Our choice of titles. She hoped we weren’t disappointed.

I wasn’t. To me, a magazine subscription was special, something that grown-ups got, and something that kept giving all year long. I chose Analog, a science fiction magazine, and my sister chose Sixteen. It was exciting to watch the mail for each month’s issue. (As kids, we didn’t usually get much mail, except cards on our birthdays.)

For the Christmases after that, my mother would renew our subscriptions, or let us change to a different title. When I started studying astronomy in high school, I switched to Sky and Telescope. When she turned 17, my sister switched to Seventeen.

Now I subscribe to the electronic versions of three magazines –Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Discover. I still get a little thrill each month when the new cover icon appears on my e-reader screen. It reminds me of the first time I ever got an actual, grown-up present – when I started becoming an adult, whether I wanted to or not.


For “Me Too” Women and “Not Me” Men

The “Me Too” campaign, in response to all the accusations, admissions, apologies, non-apologies, and political maneuvering, has had enormous effects. Women everywhere are opening up and sharing their stories of microagressions, unwanted attentions, assaults, and rape that many of them have never spoken of before. Most of the attention has gone to politicians and media figures, but the problem goes right down to every level of society.

I’m one of the women who has “Me Too” stories.

  • When I was delivering a job to a client at his home, he tried to kiss me on the lips. And my boss made light of it, wheedling me into saying I wasn’t afraid (I wasn’t) and that I wasn’t offended (I was), and telling the client that I wasn’t bothered by it. I suppose it came in the category of unwanted attentions, though technically it may have been at least battery.
  • Then there was the time that a different boss sat on my lap, just to make me uncomfortable. (He did.)
  • Another boss went around the business comparing the size of female employees’ breasts, including who should be in the “Itty Bitty Titty Club.”
  • And there was the guy who expected sex even though I was newly engaged at the time (one for the road, as it were), then stormed off in a huff after the “No.” (I’m glad that’s all he did.)

But I also have plenty of other stories – of men who were decent, gentlemanly, and reasonable, men who had my back when I needed it, men who respected my autonomy.

I don’t want to get into the “Not All Men” debate, or the “Now I can’t even make a pass” furor. I was challenged by my friend Diana to think about the good men in my life and celebrate them. And that’s what I’m doing here.

Let’s start with my father. One clear memory I have is of when I went to buy my first new car and he came with me. He looked at the cars with me, gave me advice on their mechanical soundness, and shared his experience of various models. I picked out my car (a blue Chevette) and he went with me to the sales office. The salesman asked my dad if he would co-sign the loan with me. And my dad said, “No.” Firmly but politely.

This was back in the day when young single women found it hard to get credit for a major purchase, especially if there was a man around who might take up the slack. But my father said, “No.” He believed that, since I had a job and was living on my own, it was my responsibility to make my own financial decision – and take responsibility for fulfilling it myself. Was I upset that he left the transaction up to me and the car dealer? I was proud.

Then there were the friends, male and female, in line with me at a restaurant. I objected to the racist and sexist decorations. The host replied, “If they really bother you that much, you could leave.” Did I just imagine the sneer in his voice?

“You’re right,” I said, turning on my heel and marching off down the street. When I finally looked back, every one of those in my party were following me, including the men. They literally had my back.

Or the work friend, whom I joined in after-hours putt-putt golf matches and card games at his house. He was a notorious horndog, but he never made a move on me – until the day that we were driving around and he confessed that he was interested. “But you haven’t even kissed me yet,” I replied. Then he did, once I had given him the go-ahead.

There have been men who accepted a “No,” without getting mad, or whining about the “friend zone,” or making me feel like dirt. There was even one, a big, tough guy who accepted a “No” when the interaction had reached the point of “heavy petting,” and held no grudge.

There have been men who accepted a “Yes,” without gloating or bragging or taking it for granted.

And then there’s my husband. We met under peculiar circumstances, in which I was stranded in a town miles from home (by a man who ran off with another woman, never giving a thought as to how I’d get home). Dan lent me money, drove me to the bus station, and gave me a bag of dried apples for snacking during the trip.

Since that time he has had my back every minute, under every circumstance, supporting me when I needed it, backing off when I needed to handle something myself. He has loved me when I was unlovable, cooperated when I was uncooperative. He’s literally supported me when I couldn’t work, and not resented when I could work and made more than he did. We’ve had our disagreements, but he always listened to my side – and sometimes changed his mind because of it. All in all, he’s an unusual man.

So either I’ve met a lot of unusual men and only a few jerks, or there are decent, reasonable, polite, and understanding men out there who get no publicity. Because where’s the newsworthiness (or entertainment value) in saying, “When I knew so-and-so, he treated me like a person. And I appreciated it”?

The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.



SuperKlutz and Other Nicknames

These are not what my family members call each other.
These are not what my family members call each other.

My family has an appalling habit: appalling nicknames.

When I was a kid, I had some nicknames that I didn’t mind so much. One was “Cubby,” after the little guy in the Mouseketeers.(1) As I got older and my character and personal traits became more evident, I acquired another one.


I’m not saying the nickname was unwarranted. I was, after all, the child who gave myself a fat lip (2) the day before a ballet recital where we were all supposed to wear red lipstick.(3) I was the teen who managed, while trying to get out of the back seat of a four-door car, managed to land stretched out on the pavement with both feet still in the car.(4)

These things happened in the days before self-esteem was invented, of course. No one would refer to a child as “SuperKlutz” or “Stinkpot” nowadays. I hope.

The odd thing was, my entire family had appalling nicknames. My father habitually called my mother “Old Squaw,” which at the time was not considered politically incorrect. (5) And she didn’t mind. I don’t know what she called my father in private, but I bet it was appalling as well. My sister was “Fuss-budget.” Our family also contained an “Uncle Spud” and an “Aunt Pete.” (6)

So, whom do you think I married? A man whose usual nickname for me is “Old Boot.” I’m not even sure how that one got started. We also have incomprehensible-to-others nicknames for each other, such as “Doodle,” “Ler,” and “Thing.”(7) His family included “One-Eyed Uncle Francis,” who of course, had two eyes. No explanation was ever given for that, either.

Of course, we make fun of “normal” nicknames, calling each other “honey-kissie-lambie-pie” or “sugar-cake-darling-dumpling” until everyone around gags and needs a quick hit of insulin.

The thing is, I think that most families have their own private languages that no one outside understands. They may include nicknames for foods (10), cars (11), exes (12), friends (13), acquaintances (14), restaurants (15), body parts (16), and probably technology, TV shows, and toys, for all I know.

Most of our nicknames don’t get used outside the family. The fact that Dan calls me “Bunny” has until now been as big a secret as that I once belonged to a sorority. (17) Let’s keep it just between us, shall we?


(1) My sister was “Buddy.” I couldn’t help thinking that my father really wanted boys. Or wasn’t restrained by gender norms. Or both, I guess.

(2) By bonking a chair I was carrying into a screen door. Geez, did you think I punched myself?

(3) The ballet lessons were supposed to make me more graceful. See how well that worked?

(4) No seatbelt involved, either, in case you were wondering.

(5) For any number of reasons.

(6) The reasons for Pete’s nickname are lost in the mists of time. Her real name was Edna Mae, which, come to think of it, may have been the reason.

(7) He also calls me Bunny, Rabbit, Rabbi, Baby Orange (which he also calls one of the cats) (8), Scooter, Boomameter (9) and, in a throwback to our younger days, Old Mesa Knees.

(8) I’ve written before about our cats’ nicknames (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8A). Some of them aren’t too flattering either, like Horrible Mr. Horrible Face.

(9) No. I have no idea what that means either. When asked, Dan says it is “something that measures boomas.”

(10) I had a recipe for a sweet baked good involving pastry crust, eggs, cream cheese, sugar, and optional fruit topping. My husband kept calling it “flan.” I told him that wasn’t the thing’s name. “What is it then?” he demanded. I was stumped. “Well, not flan!” I replied. “Not-flan” it has been ever since. After I thought it over, “Way-Too-Big Cheese Danish” would have been more accurate. But by then it was too late.

(11) “The Washing Machine” or “The Demon-Possessed Ventura.”

(12) “The Rotten Ex-Boyfriend Who Almost Ruined My Life,” to give a printable example.

(13) “Nearly Normal Beth,” “Jerk Boy,” “Michigan Dude.”

(14) “Fish-Face,” “Binky.”

(15) “Chateau Blanc,” “La Frisch,” “Waffle Ho.”

(16) General, like “wing-wing” or “gazongas,” or specific, like “throbbing purple-headed warrior” or “quivering love pudding.”

(17) I also used to go by Dusty. But never Dust Bunny, thank God.

The Obligatory Mothers Day Post

Mother’s Day is fine if you have either a mother or children. Otherwise, it’s difficult, confusing, and even annoying. And for some people, worse than that.

Let’s think about this.

Grunge vintage floral backgroundChildless women

According to U.S. Census data, less than half of women are mothers. Yet childless women are ignored on Mothers Day. For childless-by-choice women, this is usually okay, except for reminding them that they are not participating in what society tells us is the greatest experience in life. And on Mothers Day, all women are assumed to have children. Try eating out and see if you aren’t handed a flower just because you are of an age to reproduce (or have ever been at an age when you could have reproduced), whether or not you have children in tow.

But for women who are childless – and not by choice – Mothers Day can be a day of profound sorrow. Infertile women; women who’ve had miscarriages or even some who’ve had abortions; women without partners who believe a child needs a father; women whose children have died from disease, violence, or suicide can find Mothers Day an occasion for mourning rather than cheer.


Mandatory Cheer

And let’s talk about how society requires that people be joyous and appreciative on Mothers Day.

First, we know that much hoopla regarding Mothers Day is promoted by the greeting card, florist, jewelry, perfume, beauty products, restaurant and any other industry that can think of a way to get you to buy something “for Mom.” Churches, civic groups, and other organizations are on the bandwagon too. Mothers Day sermons, “Best Mom” contests, and modeling dough handprints abound.

In the midst of all this glowing praise, we seem to forget that not all mothers are good mothers and not all children are good children. Who would want to be reminded that Mom was abusive? That a hoped-for child is a drug addict? That the relationship between mother and child is irretrievably broken for any reason?


The Deserving Others

And whom else do we leave out on Mothers Day?

How about single fathers?

How about people whose mothers have recently died?

Do we forget about adoptive parents in the flurry of sentiment over giving birth?

Do we neglect foster parents, too?

And aren’t there teachers and counselors and other caregivers who give as much love and promote a child’s healthy growth by being a mother-figure – sometimes a child’s only one?

In our zeal to celebrate motherhood, do we forget that there are many kinds of families, and that families of the heart are as important as families that share DNA?

And what about mothers-in-law? I had a wonderful mother, whose memories I treasure and whose passing I grieve. She was kind, and giving, and determined to do the best for her family. But now I have a mother-in-law who is devoted, and generous, and someone I can proudly cal “Mom.” Isn’t she worthy of honor and celebration, too?

So what’s the take-away for me? That I have deeply mixed feelings about the holiday and how it’s celebrated? Yes. That I have had good mothers and mother-figures? Yes. That I know not everyone’s experiences of motherhood and raising children are ideal? Yes. That I think society puts too much pressure on women to be mothers? Yes. That I deplore the commercialism and no-thought gifts that get so much emphasis placed on them? Yes.

Am I a mother? No.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to opinions on the subject.

The Power of the Purr

My father hated cats – until he cared for Bijou.

His feelings toward cats had their roots in his childhood. Once his mother was bitten by a stray cat that she was trying to help. For that, my father held a grudge. Bijou changed his mind.

Bijou was a smallish tortoiseshell calico, my very first cat. I picked her out of a roomful of cats at the shelter because of her gentle demeanor and because her quiet ways didn’t seem to garner a lot of attention from the other prospective pet owners. Over the years she became a cuddlesome kitty who slept curled up in one of the curves of my body, behind my knees or snuggled by my waist, safe and cozy and sharing warmth.

When my husband and I went on our honeymoon, I asked my parents to look after Bijou. I knew my dad’s feelings about cats, but I felt sure he could at least give her food and water, if not warm up to and love on her as she liked.

My father had cancer – multiple myeloma – a particularly vicious form of bone cancer. It was hard for him to move about, so when he went to our house, he usually ensconced himself in the barrel-backed chair while my mother did the honors filling food and water bowls.

But then Bijou jumped up on his lap.

And purred.

She had been avoiding us a bit before we left, preferring to take up residence under the bed or behind the sofa. We thought it was just a normal reaction to all the confusion and chaos surrounding a wedding.

Actually, she had feline leukemia. She was isolating, as cats often do when they don’t feel well. Maybe the stress of the wedding preparations caused her disease to become active. Maybe it was just her time.

Whatever it was, it touched my father. He had never been one for cancer support groups with names like “Make Today Count.” But one small cat, purring her way through pain and illness that would ultimately defeat her reached him the way nothing else could.

Maybe he saw in her the tenacity in the face of suffering that he too would need. Maybe he read her purr as acceptance of her lot in life. Maybe he saw a cat with every reason to strike out at someone choosing instead to jump up and purr.

However she did it, Bijou changed his mind about cats.

Frog Hair, Gunga Din, and an Old Cow

My father had his own peculiar way of speaking.

It wasn’t just his Kentucky accent, which can actually be found throughout most of southern Ohio where we lived, and even up into Michigan.(1)

Because we lived in Ohio since I was three, my dad was concerned that I might start “talking like a Yankee.” When we would go back to Kentucky (which we did frequently) he called it “getting elocution lessons.”(2)  I ended up able to speak what was known as “Network Standard,” and also to lapse back into a Kentucky accent when it would annoy my sorority sisters.(3)

So my father was not alone in his manner of speech, but he did have his own peculiar vocabulary. I suppose that somewhere amid the hills and hollers there are people who still speak like this, but in suburban Ohio, he was near-incomprehensible.(4)

Here are some of my father’s favorite expressions and what a normal person would say in the same circumstances.

“Finer’n frog hair split four ways” = “I’m great, thanks, and you?”

“Hangin’ in like Gunga Din”= “I’m great, thanks, and you?”(5)

“Like an old cow pissing on a flat rock” = “My, it’s raining hard.”(6)

“A real frog strangler” = “My, it’s raining hard.”

“Give me a box of Band-aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome and I’ll have this cow back up on her feet and giving milk in ten minutes” = “Gosh, this steak is too rare.”

“If he had another nickel, he’d have bought a red car.” = “My goodness, that car is certainly bright red.”(7)

Most of my father’s odd expressions came from his upbringing in rural Kentucky, but some of them he borrowed from the Old West. This habit only increased when he retired from civil service on a disability and went back to his roots. He started wearing flannel shirts, cowboy hat and boots, or sometimes sneakers. He abandoned the Vitalis and Aqua Velva for chewing tobacco and small, disgusting cans of pemmican he ordered through the mail.

Young children were fascinated by his cowboy persona. Once while in a restaurant wearing his Wild West get-up, and crutches owing to his disability, a young lad asked whether he had been shot by an Indian, much to the embarrassment of his mother. My dad loved it. On another occasion, he addressed a young boy as “little pard,” (short for “partner,”) only to have the child respond indignantly, “I am NOT a little fart.”

My mother was tolerant of his idiosyncrasies.(8)  She had to be. His pet name for her was “Old Squaw,” which these days, of course, would be politically incorrect for oh-so-many reasons.(9)

All in all, my father’s language was in some way reassuring. It was a family thing. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world understood him. We did.

(1) This is a result of the southern migration up I-75, also known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” Thousands left the southern states for industrial jobs in Ohio and Michigan car plants.

(2) My high school speech and debate teachers disagreed with him on the necessity of this, or at least his definition of same.

(3) My college membership in Delta Phi Epsilon is one of my darkest secrets and I hesitated to reveal it. In fact, just pretend you never read this footnote.

(4) Once at a party he fell into conversation with a shy, soft-spoken young lady. The next day we learned that each had thought the other must be from a foreign country.

(5) Very few people know where this expression comes from. You may recognize “Gunga Din” as the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, but that’s not where my father got it. Early rock and roller and country superstar Jerry Lee (“The Killer”) Lewis used to use the phrase in some of his songs. No one knew what he meant by it then, and no one knew what my father meant by it either.

(6) People often ask, but there is no real reason that it has to be an old cow. It just is.

(7) I occasionally use this one myself, once totally confusing a friend’s Puerto Rican boyfriend.

(8) Though once in a while even she didn’t get what he was talking about. Once, when getting ready for a trip, he told her, “Pack and tie,” which had something to do with loading a covered wagon (I think). She thought he said, “Pack a tie,” and she did, though she had no idea why he wanted one.

(9) Some say girls marry their fathers. I don’t know about that, but I did marry a man whose term of endearment for me is “Old Boot.” Not usually in public, though.

When Life Gives You Daughters…

Dad wanted sons, it’s clear in hindsight. What he got was me and Lucy.(1)

Being a good dad, he never said – at least within my hearing – that he really wanted sons. He never said it to my mother within my hearing either.

But there were subtle signs. He gave us boys’ nicknames, for example. Lucy was Buddy and I was Cubby, after the cute little boy Mouseketeer.(2)

Dad would roughhouse with us. He took us to the rifle range and taught us to shoot. He wanted me to grow up to be an engineer. Lucy was determined to be either a jockey or a veterinarian neither of which was a realistic goal, but he left her to her fantasies and decided that I should follow in his footsteps.(3) My mother finally convinced him not to try talking me out of my goal of being a teacher, but by the time she succeeded I had already given it up.(4)

Dad was no feminist though.(5) He just wanted children that he could engage in his guy pursuits with. He wasn’t a sports fan, but he encouraged – no, positively enabled – any interests or hobbies I had that were even quasi-military.(6) I liked archery, fencing, and martial arts. He would buy me all the equipment or accessories I needed. One Christmas he even gave me a Black Widow model slingshot. It had a spiffy wrist brace so that you could get a steady aim and a stronger pull. I don’t think I ever used it, but if I had wanted to I could have put a ball bearing through the side of the garage.

Lucy and I were what they called tomboys back then – me more than Lucy.(7) My mother still got a chance to indulge girlier whims. Every Easter would find us dressed in ruffled pink organdy with frills and itchy headbands adorned with fruit or flowers. Little white patent leather shoes and little white ankle socks were also required, as was the taking of pictures in front of the house.(8)

Despite the occasional attempt at girliness, Lucy and I were not indoctrinated into the prevailing feminine ideals. For example, neither of my parents ever even hinted that I should hide my brains so as not to scare off the boys. In fact, they encouraged me to show off my smarts in some fairly obnoxious ways. I always knew college was my destiny, but I never got the impression that marriage and motherhood were also expected. It came as a surprise to everyone – most of all me – when I did acquire a husband.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that husband turned out to have a combination of male and female traits himself. He bonded with my father by replacing his shocks and with my mother by gardening. He has a background in private-duty nursing and has often had women for bosses.(9) I don’t know that much about his upbringing, but I do know it left him flexible and understanding about the limits of gender roles. I know even less about Lucy’s husband, but I think it’s probably significant that he drives for Meals on Wheels, another sort of caretaking.

In a way I feel sorry for the girls I see who are raised to be princesses in pink. It’s so limiting. We were raised not as girls, not as boys, not as girly boys or boyish girls, but as children (10), who came from male and female, and carried bits of both inside us. And I can’t speak for Lucy, but I think the experience has served me well.

(1) That’s not her real name, but I may occasionally say unflattering things about her and want to cover my bets. And my ass.
(2) Admittedly these were better than the nicknames one guy on a reality show gave his little daughters – Truck and Tank. But ours were still just a wee bit butch.
(3) He was an industrial engineering technician, and since I was destined for college, that made me the obvious choice. I suppose I could have become an engineer, but I would have been a very unhappy one.
(4) There were much more exciting things to be, like a bus driver, a chemist, an FBI agent, or a poet.
(5) When I decided to keep my own name – well, his name, really – after marriage, he quoted that bit to me about the man is head of the woman as Christ is head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23).
(6) He considered “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” to be a fun, catchy children’s song.
(7) I don’t know what they call tomboys now. Just girls, I think. Or maybe children with non-conforming gender identity norms. If you’re a sociologist, I mean.
(8) Some of these pictures may still exist, but you’re not going to see them here.
(9) Not to imply I’m bossy or anything.
(10) It could have been worse. When we were out and about in the neighborhood Dad would whistle to call us back home. I suppose we could have turned out to be dogs.