This article was originally published in the Times Herald-Record in 1998.
Like most second-generation Americans, my parents pursued assimilation with a fury. They came of age during the depression and when my father returned home from World War II they settled down to raise a big family in a house away from the old neighborhood, a neighborhood that in their youth rang with the clang of picks on anthracite in the Gaelic and Welsh words of their elders. A babble of Italian, Yiddish and Lithuanian from other precincts swirled around them.
The neighborhood is almost gone now. The enormous slag heaps that towered over it, hemmed it in, have long been hauled away. The miners who dug the coal out of the earth and carried lunches of salty meat and cold potatoes in tin buckets into the tunnels are but phantoms. The tracks on which coal-laden trains clattered across every artery in the city were torn up ages ago.
And yet, the job of eradicating the past takes more than one generation. Their children are thoroughly Americanized but the sensibility of older times lives on in my parents’ language — a language of sly metaphor, of humor and ribaldry and clarity, a language more vivid and alive than the standard American English they made sure their children learn to speak in standard American schools in a standard American neighborhood.
When their generation passes, that language – and the uncompromising way it made sense of a world that no longer exists – will also pass.
“Amadan,” for instance. There’s a word I’ll surely never hear again. It is an old Gaelic word that translated loosely – and gently – refers to someone who is not terribly bright. More specifically, when I was a boy, an “amadan” was any careless driver (see also: “horse’s ass” who pulled into my father’s path on the highway.)
“Look at that, Amadan!” My father would snarl.
(Unless it was a woman driving – then the offender was a “Jane.” All women were Janes.)
I heard the word as “homadan.” Soon after I got my license I was driving my father to work when a car pulled out about a mile ahead. I was anxious to show him I had become a man who spoke a man’s language. “Look at that homadan,” I said arrogantly.
He shook his head with a mixture of amusement and pity. “It’s not ‘homadan,’ it’s ‘amadan.’
“Gibrobe” was also a disparagement, though not as harsh. As in: “You should have seen this gibrobe who came into the shop today looking for directions. Hair down to his hindquarters!” (It was the sixties.) “I told him 10 times how to get where he was going and he still drove off in the wrong direction.”
Probably looking for some Jane, I thought.
Closely related to Gibrobes were Darbs, who compounded the crime of ignorance by adopting a superior attitude. Most of the professors at the Catholic college where my father worked as an electrician were darbs. As in: “That poor darb doesn’t even know how dumb he is.”
My parents scolding words were also poetical and strange. I often stifled laughter while being corrected. In truth, though, the words sunk in because they sounded like the things they described. The language of modern parenting lacks such zest.
My house, 1967: “Don’t get persnickety with me, buddy.”
My house, 1997: “Your behavior is not appropriate.”
Whole different effect.
The words that weren’t odd were archaic. When I balked at attending church in fifth grade, my mother was able to sum up my new state of spiritual awareness and pass judgment with a single word – “heathen.”
There is an entire theory of language predicated on the fact that Eskimos have roughly 7,000 words to describe different types of snow. This is supposed to demonstrate, I think, that language enables people to make fine distinctions between prominent elements in their environment.
Awaiting my father’s return from work each night were six children in various states of disobedience, ranging from whining to distress to outright rebellion; each had its own word. Far worse than persnicketiness, for instance, was snippiness. As in: “Don’t get snippy with me, young lady” – snippiness was the province of my four sisters. It was also a gender-neutral noun. As in: “Don’t be such a little snip.”
My mother refereed disputes all day, but my father was the Supreme Court. He did not pontificate. He rendered judgments and guidance succinctly and with humor. Today’s parents, alas, learns to value sensitivity over clarity.
My house, 1997: “You have plenty of things to be grateful for. Others are less fortunate.”
My house, 1967: “What’re you complaining about? You’ve got ham in your bucket.”
Like all good advice, his was uncluttered and easy to remember. Watching me choke up on a hammer for better accuracy once, he remarked, “You paid for the whole hammer, why don’t you use the whole hammer?” Actually, he used a few more words, words I cannot print here. Fill them in yourself – they go between whole and hammer.
His sex talk was similarly concise. When my high school wrestling teammate, a big Slavic fellow named Kuderka, got his girlfriend pregnant my father knew it was time for a man-to-man.
As I helped him wire a house one day, he reluctantly broached the subject of sexuality. E.B. White could not have explained things with more economy.
“Don’t pull a Kuderka on me, hear?” my father said.
“Now, hand me that hammer.”
My mother’s strict code of propriety forbade swearing, so my father retreated to his basement workbench when he wished to indulge himself. We often tried to drive my mother to profanity, but she was implacable. Occasionally she could be heard to mutter in exasperation, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
Without fail some persnickety little snip – usually me, having miraculously recovered my faith – would upbraid her for taking the Lord’s name in vain.
She would sigh and gaze at me with a weary wisdom only experience can purchase. “No,” she would say quietly, “I’m praying. For patience.”
My parents did not go to college. Ours was not a house where Socratic principles or the finer points of literature (pronounced, lit–ra–chur where I grew up) were bandied about the table. But we learned wisdom just the same.
We learned because the language my parents used to describe the world and its people was blunt and funny and course and sad.
Like life itself.
Ironically, and to my parents great delight, I grew up to become an Americanized member of an institution that sometimes seems bent on vanquishing clarity and humanity from the language – the large bureaucratic university, where task forces coalesce to vision outcomes, grow the intellect and empower learners (in other words, to make sure the kids who enroll leave able to use the brains they were born with and put ham in their buckets).
I hold onto my parents’ language as a way of holding onto clarity. I miss living in a world where pock-marked Interstate 81 was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where we stayed at ballgames until the last dog was dead, where a mechanically challenged individual was about as handy as a handle on a pisspot – and where you could see amadans, gibrobes and darbs coming from a mile off.