I have missed many things about my mother since she died in 2006, but maybe nothing as much as the colorful sayings and phrases I used to hear from her.
My mother was the quintessential Southern woman – loving mother and wife, good friend, incredible cook – and she taught me my love of reading, and words, and language. I wish I had written down all of the things she used to say, many of which were funny, and some that were just plain baffling.
She often spoke of things being “tighter than Dick’s hatband.” Example: Nobody was home, and the house was locked up tighter than Dick’s hatband. I don’t know who Dick was, or if his head was too big, or if he bought the wrong size hat.
I never heard this phrase anywhere else until one day when I was reading Rick Bragg’s excellent memoir “All Over but the Shoutin’,” which is mostly about his mother, and he quotes her using that phrase. I met him once at a conference and I told him I was relieved to see that somebody else had said that, because when I had used it a couple of times people looked at me like I was crazy.
“I know,” he said. “It sounds like you’re saying something dirty.”
My mother, of course, never intentionally said anything dirty. She would sort of half-cuss (not curse – a curse is something a witch puts on you), by either abbreviating a word, or spelling it out. For example, she might say “shhhtttt”, eliminating the “i”, and therefore not really saying a dirty word. Or she might say somebody is going to “h-e-double-l”, or threaten to spank my “a-s-s.” I never saw the difference in spelling it or saying it, but she did, and I didn’t question it.
She also use some words that I think she may have made up, like “asslin’ .” Again, not a dirty word, but almost. Asslin’ basically meant horseplay, as in “stop asslin’ around and get in the house.”
Another one is “swonney.” Swonney apparently means the same as declare, or swear. As in, “I swonney, I believe we’re going to be late.”
Something expected to be over soon would last “no longer than Pat stayed in the Army.” I once asked her, “Who is Pat?” She couldn’t remember. I can’t find evidence of anybody else ever using this phrase, so I suspect there really was a Pat somewhere that she knew of, and he didn’t stay in the Army long.
If somebody moved slow, she’d say, “He’ll be late to his own funeral.” If she asked you to do her a favor, she’d say “Do it and I’ll sing at your funeral.” I don’t know what the funeral obsession was about.
If somebody was poor, they “didn’t have a pot to piss in, or a window to pour it out of.” If you did something that might make her mad, she’d threaten to “cloud up and rain all over you.” You didn’t want to be rained on, trust me. Somebody in a bad mood was as "ill as a sore-tailed cat." In times of astonishment, she’d say “I’ll be John Brown,” which really is sort of like cussing, to a Southerner.
I wish I could remember them all. I dream about her all the time, so maybe I should start sleeping with a note pad and pencil by the bed, just in case I hear something.