My mother, Martha Nell Hardy, was a transcendently beautiful woman who, as she aged, began to trade more on wisdom and an increasingly folksy humor than her looks. It was her way of aging gracefully and still having a rapt and appreciative audience. My father, novelist and playwright Bill Hardy, is a wonderful writer, but, for peculiar turns of phrase, it was Mom who took the proverbial cake. Perhaps it was because her father was from Altamont, a small town in Texas whose newspaper featured a Puny Column, wherein all indisposed citizens were identified and their ailments detailed, or the fact that her Great Aunt used to inform her sister that her Puerto Rican date had arrived by hollering, “Mary Elizabeth! That half-breed’s here!”
Here are a few of Mom’s more memorable lines:
- “It all goes to the same place.” Referring to food and why you should not fret if your food juices co-mingle.
- “If it was a snake, it wudda bit ya!” Referring to something in plain sight – such as the mustard — that you have stupidly asked her to find.
- “Stick your head out too far, it may go home in another car.” Who can argue with that?
- “Strike while the cookies are passed.” It was years before I realized that the actual expression was, “Strike while the iron is hot.”
- “Dead as a nit.” Apparently more final than plain old “dead.”
- “Your Jesus bush.” The azalea bush Father Devereau gave me on my confirmation.
- “Think of it as protein.” Boll weevils in the flour.
- “Who does her hair?” Not a compliment.
- “You got to eat a peck of dirt before you die!” But, why?
Mom loved to “swocker” dogs (get them all riled up), while “Matty Friezler style” referred to a meal set out on the sideboard for people to help themselves, leading us children to wonder: Who was this mysterious Matty? “Anti-goat” was her word for deodorant. An “erk-erk!” was a heritage home that she wanted to buy and renovate. Then there was my Uncle Leon, whom nobody much liked. She called him, “The Horse,” which has always puzzled me, because aren’t horses nice?
Every once in a while she would have an attack of reverse snobbism. “We don’t buy our furniture,” she would declare. “We have our furniture.” In this, she was paraphrasing a female representative of the venerable Cabot and Lodges families who, when asked where she had purchased her hat, replied, “We don’t buy our hats. We have our hats.” The implication was that we enjoyed the same relationship with our chattels that Boston Brahmins did with their millinery. The reality was that our furniture was inherited from deceased middle-class relatives or looted from junk shops, of which she was an avid aficionado.
Speaking of deceased middle-class relatives, my Great Grandfather George Skinner was a conductor on the K.D. Special, a train that ran between Galveston, Texas and Joplin, Missouri. According to Mom, this was the reason for her uncannily good sense of direction. I’m not sure how she arrived at this conclusion, but the fact was, she really did have a good sense of direction. Whenever we were lost, she would reassure us by saying, “Don’t worry. I’m the grand-daughter of a railroad conductor.” And we were reassured.
My grandmother always cried when my mother left. Mom’s solution was this: she would lean out of the train window and yell, “Don’t forget to feed the chickens!” Not only did my grandmother hate chickens with a vengeance that bordered on the pathologic, she was also extremely Texas Lace Curtain Gentile and the idea that other people might think she kept chickens embarrassed her so much that she would abruptly stop crying and scuttle quickly away. (Grandmother also stole towels from every Hilton she and my grandfather stayed at on each of their several around-the-world tours and hoarded paper products. But I digress.)
When I was in my early twenties, I moved far away from my parents and, although I visit often, I continue to live a two-day drive from my home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Over the years Mom and I worked out between us our own private little leave-taking ritual. As my car was pulling out of the drive and she was starting to tear up, I would lean out the window and call to her, “Don’t forget to feed the chickens!”
In fact, it was the very last thing I said to my mother before she died. Only I was the one doing the crying that time.
If it hadn’t been for her, I’m sure my head would have gone home in another car long ago.