My family role models have always had a way of saying things that made me remember their words. On those occasions when they couldn't find the right word, they simply made up one of their own to fit the situation. And they didn't hesitate to quote the words of another if they seemed appropriate.
I can recall with perfect clarity the incident when my sister Lesta and I were adolescents -- with bosoms that had never known the inflation of childbirth -- and decided to provide nature with a little help. Grams took one look at our newly endowed chests, winked and laughingly observed, "What God has forgotten, she padded with cotton." I don't know if the rhyme was Grams' or if she appropriated it, but it was effective: Lesta and I ditched the toilet tissue (it wasn't cotton, after all) and waited for nature to take its course.
My great-uncle Lew, a lifelong world traveler, frequently came under attack by some family members for his wandering ways. I suspect Grams' secretly admired her brother's footloose freedom, because -- in his defense -- she placed a plaque on the dining room wall which read: "A rolling stone may gather no moss, but it certainly gets well polished." The sentiment was Grams' even though the words were not.
The plaque was there one summer day in the early years of The Great Depression when Uncle Lew visited and got into trouble with the local constable for speeding down the small town's main street in his Dusenberg. Family legend says that when the judge fined him a hefty $50, Uncle Lew threw down a $100 bill and uttered the words that permanently established him as an eccentric figure in the town's history, "Keep the change. I may want to do it again."
When it came to having a way with words, my father followed in his forebear's footsteps. Dad excelled at paraphrasing others' words, especially those of poets. For years I thought the lines which followed Tennyson's "Break, break, break, on thy cold gray rocks, oh Sea," were "But you can break for 40 years " and not be as broke as me!"
Because Dad spoke five languages in addition to English, he also interspersed foreign words into his conversations. As children, we learned that "allez" meant, "Get out of the way!" and that "mach schnell" meant, "And do it in a hurry!" He also coined new English words. For example, do you know what "frizzle" means? Hint: it's weather related. Give up? It's "freezing drizzle."
A word I wish my parents hadn't made up was one they applied as a cutesy synonym for a bodily function. They created the word so my sisters and I, when babies, could announce that we needed to avail ourselves of that bodily function without proclaiming it to the wider world. Problem was, we used the word well past babyhood.
Catastrophe struck when I was 9 years old and my dance teacher, Miss Maxine, planned a recital in which another girl and I were to perform in clown costume. The other girl's clown name was Bozo. Good name for a clown. But my clown name was -- you guessed it -- the same name as the bodily function.
I didn't say anything to Miss Maxine -- how could I? -- but I still remember lying face-down on my bed after dance class, pounding and kicking the mattress and bawling my eyes out. No way, I insisted, was I going to portray a clown with that name. "But lots of clowns are called Toto," Mom reasoned, "and, besides, no one else will know what that word means."
"I WILL!" I wailed. And that is why in the fading photo of dance recital participants, I am posed on the stage with a group of a dozen tap dancers dubbed Classy Clicks, the broad smile on my face reflecting my confidence that neither of those words represents a bodily function.
Even today, when I think of that incident, I wish my parents had spared the creative thinking and settled for the tried-and-true name for that bodily function. Had they done so, they could have spared me enormous embarrassment and a major case of hysterics -- because I am reasonably certain there has never been a clown called Tinkle.