The Singing Singleys
Early in my marriage I called my husband "weird" and he acted hurt—as if I had called him a bad name. But in my family growing up, weird was a term of endearment, as was jerk-face, if spoken in the right tone. ("Can you please come here for a minute, jerk face?") My mom said, "You're such an idiot," to one of us kids in front of a friend and the friend was appalled, but we knew from her tone of voice that my mom meant, "That was a silly thing to do." My husband was even more shocked the first time my dad called him an idiot in a card game. All in good fun....
Every family has it's own culture, whether that culture is deliberate or not. I was lucky enough to be raised in a weird, fun, musical, rambunctious house with four siblings, even if our language was a little rough.
The defining characteristic of my family was that we were singers. We were known as the Singing Singleys from the time we were old enough to walk onto a stage. I distinctly remember the first time I successfully harmonized with my dad. I must have been six or seven, driving home from a Christmas concert, singing Silent Night. It was magical.
We performed at church parties and at nursing homes on a regular basis. We had a rigorous Christmas Caroling schedule. My mom taught us barbershop and named us "The Accidentals." (Was she trying to tell us something?) We all learned the piano (with varying degrees of success) and branched out to other instruments, ultimately including one banjo, two saxophones, two trumpets, a flute, and a guitar. That's not including the various instruments my dad has collected. He can play any instrument he puts his hands on.
I had a friend who told me she didn't like musicals, because no one just randomly bursts out into song in real life. I didn't say a word, but I wondered what the heck she was talking about. That was real life at my house. Anything could trigger a song. If someone mentioned my friend Rita, we'd all bust into "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid." We had specific wake-up songs ("Oh What a Beautiful Morning," "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,"`), bedtime songs, and many in between. I would even croon dramatic songs out my bedroom window, as would the heroine in any good musical, while dreaming about future love—songs like, "Goodnight, My Someone" and "Somewhere Out There."
Because of our musicality, we had to have certain rules that I later discovered most families don't have. Rules like, "No singing at the dinner table," and "No singing while playing board games." My sister quickly realized that she wasn't allowed to randomly sing out loud in her Kindergarten class, so when recess came she'd throw her arms out and sing all around the playground, like Maria Von Trapp.
On road trips, however long, we'd sing the entire time. We'd play games where someone would name a musical and we had to sing all the songs, or where you had to sing a song that started with the last word of the previous song. The first few times I road-tripped with my now husband and his sister, I sang along with the radio the whole time, not realizing until years later that no one else was singing, and that it might have been a little weird.
Here's a video clip of a family concert, circa 1996. The sparkly people in the back are the Bishop, CA, chapter of the Sweet Adelines. For some reason, we started by singing our actual answering machine jingle:
Another thing I didn't realize until I was living with roommates in college, was that many of the idioms my mom used all the time were not universal. It's still hard for me to parse out which ones are common and which ones are not, but here are a few of the funny ones (my siblings and I compiled a list of 66 total):
I'll be ready in two shakes of a dead lamb's tail.
That would gag a dog off a gut wagon.
You're going to get incapumpus of the blowhole.
Do you have St. Vidas' Dance? (If we were fidgety)
You want fair, go to Pomona (the location of our county fair).
Get that penny out of your mouth—it could have been sitting on a dead man's eye!
If wishes were fishes we'd all have a fry.
You don't have the sense of a soda cracker.
I may be green and cabbage-looking, but I'm not stupid.
That's as crooked as a dog's hind leg!
He's like a fart on a hot skillet.
It will feel better when it stops hurting.
You think you're hot snot in a wine glass, but you're really a cold booger in a dixie cup.
If you sew on the Sabbath, you'll have to pick the stitches out with your nose in the next life.
You're strong, but smell isn't everything.
There are a few I won't share here for propriety's sake. Someday, I'd really like to research the origins of all of these Momisms. My dad's strange idiomatic contribution came from his own father: "You don't know sick'm." We still don't know what that means.
The Law of Anecdotal Return
My family is also full of storytellers. We come by it naturally, from my grandparents who have lived their whole lives in Heber City, UT, and can tell a story about every long-time resident there. My grandma is also a prolific poet. Her magnum opus is about an outhouse.
Growing up, we didn't have a name for it, but we lived by the Law of Anecdotal Return—making choices based on which option will lead to the best story. For example, once while we were driving down the highway, between Utah and California, the door to the trailer we were pulling fell off. When he realized what had happened, Dad unhooked the trailer, and drove back to recover our stuff (he never found any of it). While we waited for him, we decided to make a good story out of it, so we used whatever we had left in the trailer for material. We played tennis and all manner of other games in the middle of the highway. (It was a very deserted road.) We danced and cavorted. We sang barbershop (of course).
We got a lot of mileage out of sleepwalking and sleepwalking stories. One of our favorite stories to tell was about when my younger sister, Cassie, was playing hide and seek, and my mom found her climbing into the dryer to hide. Appalled, my mom wanted to show her how hard it would be to get out. So she had her get inside, and shut the door. Neither of them realized that the dryer was on, so my sister took a few tumbles before my mom could gather her wits enough to open the door. And that's why you don't hide in the dryer!
My whole family recently gathered for a bittersweet reunion at my Grandpa's funeral. We only had one full day together, but we spent it reminiscing, laughing, and, of course, singing together.
Our childhood was not perfect—many of our music rehearsals ended in arguments or tears, we fought with each other, left each other out, and suffered through some really terrible birthday cakes (my dad broke a knife trying to cut into one of them). But it gives me hope for my own children that the things I remember most vividly are those beautiful moments telling and creating new stories, singing in harmony, and just being weird together.