When I was a wee child, I could not pronounce “vacuum cleaner.” Let’s say I was two. So instead, as my mother or father pushed some antediluvian model around our tiny apartment, I cried “keeny-mo” with delight. Perhaps it should be spelled “ceanie-mo.” There is no way to investigate further.
For the rest of his life (he died more than 30 years ago, much too young), my father referred to the vacuum cleaner as the keeny-mo. I have continued to do so, and now my husband has occasionally followed suit.
My father also invented and repeated a few other phrases, one of which got me into a mortifying situation in school. Wait for it. In the shower, he sang uproars. Not operas, but uproars. Now I sing uproars. When he went after annoying buzzing insects with a fly swatter, they were fliggle beasts. And they still are, in my house. He called me by all kinds of endearments which I have now, lacking children of my own, foisted onto the dogs. (My mother, on the other hand, called me less flattering names. In Yiddish, vilde chayah means wild thing with negative connotations, and I was one –and maybe Maurice Sendak was as well. My mother was another story.)
When my father burped, he said, “Thank you, father.” I have no idea why. Sometimes, however, he replaced that with a longer phrase: “Howard Culp [Kulp?], assistant concertmaster.”
One morning, however, he came into the kitchen. “A-one,” he said, “it is a very sad day indeed.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I cannot remember which orchestra Howard Culp was the assistant concertmaster of.”
I offered sympathy—but I also smiled.
Now I fully understand the memory problem and realize his comments were not entirely meant to amuse. Plus I have just tried to find the answer to this Mr. Culp (Kulp?) problem online with no luck, so I, too, will never know. And it bothers me that I won’t.
But I digress.
Mortification: My father frequently recited poetry following his uproars. These recitations were occasioned by nothing whatsoever, and I was an innocent. “Abu Ben Yitzhok, may his tribe decrease,” he declaimed. My friends from my youth remember this (and more).
So off I go to school. In some English class or other, probably earlier than high school, the entire class opened the textbook (also antediluvian) to a new poem. The teacher read these words:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:— *
You guessed it. I raised my hand. “That’s wrong,” I said. “It goes like this…” And only as I began to recite it did I realize that I was headed for Big Trouble. I choose not to discuss this further; perhaps it is enough to tell you that I was not allowed to stay home sick from school forever. And there may have been a tantrum or two around the dinner table.
Yes, there is a point here related to writing, at least in my own mind. Maybe it’s a stretch. But how can you individualize your characters so they will be unforgettable? What is it about your characters that will make your reader remember and treasure them forever? What constellation of words on the page will make your characters as unique as Eeyore, Charlotte, Toad, and—for me—Leo Schubert, who would have been 97 in 11 days?
And PS: what words or phrases are unique to your own family of origin, now carried to the next generation?
*for the rest of the poem, which is by Leigh Hunt: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173698