One of the best places to learn things ahead of your time is to hang out under the dining room table at your Grannie’s house after the meal. The guys are in the front room listening to the ball game,,Yes, this is before TV…way before …and quietly listen to the conversations held by Grannie, Mommy and the Aunts.
Being the only female grandchild and the youngest I was encouraged to stay in the house so I wouldn’t get my starched and lacy fancy dress dirty. My 2 cousins were both older than me by 3 and 4 years and they were brothers. You expect boys to get dirty and they aren’t wearing lace and ruffles so they get chased into the back yard to let off steam.
When I was very young they gave me pot lids to bang around to amuse myself. I had a great time and made lots of noise. As I got older I learned to make less noise and to listen. I also learned that on the way home from Grannie’s was not the time to sit up in the back seat where they thought I was sleeping and say something like; “Mommy? What does it mean when they say your Upstate cousin Meggie stole a march on the preacher?”
My Mom gasped and my Dad almost hit a tree he was laughing so hard. I don’t recall if I ever did get an answer.
Then there was this gentleman who I called “Uncle Larry”. He wasn’t my uncle but he was my cousin’s father’s brother and they called him Uncle…so I did too. Anyway, it seemed that he had something strange about him, My Aunt Kay said he was a “Skirt Chaser”.
Hearing that I immediately pictured him running through backyards and snatching skirts off the clothesline. Larry also held the record for getting married. He did that six times! There were a lot of divorce lawyers who heard his name and started picking out names for the yacht they would buy with the profits. No one ever mentioned how many kids he had but these were the days when divorce was a word you didn’t say in mixed company. No wonder he chased skirts! Keeping his wives in fashion must have cost him a bundle.
Then there was “Uncle George”. He was a bachelor and lived with his parents long past the point when he should have moved out, gotten a girlfriend and marched down the aisle. There was even talk of hooking him up with one of Larry’s ex-wives. Talk about Desperate Housewives? Looking back from this distance I see that George was absolutely crazy about Aunt Peg. She was the green-eyed, raven haired Barbie doll of the group but she was married to my Uncle Eddie. She was my Mom's older sister and the favored child. She was also a great gossip. She knew all about the “Upstate NY” families and shared it at length. I had started to take a coloring book and crayons under the table and that was a good thing. I was so quiet they forgot I was there and talked about stuff I really didn’t know. Like how one of the “Upstaters” had a premature baby. The preemie weighed about 10 lbs and I figured out that what my father meant when he said; “The first baby can come anytime but the rest of them take nine months.” It was sort of like “Stealing a march on the preacher.”
Oh, There was also the“Embarrassing Condition”. That was also linked to stealing that march and the huge preemies that they had upstate. Never forget that their winters were very harsh and there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Fun is where you find it.
After they caught up on relatives they would discuss neighbors. Once in a while they would remember I was under that table and would spell out names that I might recognize.
I was an excellent speller with all this home schooling I was getting. I found out what really happened to Mr. Reilly down the street. He had a big bandage on his head and had to spend a few days in the hospital because ‘They’ said he fell down the stairs. What really happened was he came home drunker than Cooter Brown and started to give his wife a hard time. Bridget Reilly was not in a good mood because she was pregnant with her seventh and she watched as he seated himself at the kitchen table and demanded his supper. She gave him the frying pan, on his head. More than once… After that episode his whole manner changed. He stopped drinking, started going to mass and treated Bridget like a queen. Probably brain damage. I looked at Bridget with a lot of respect after that. The men crossed the street rather than walk on her sidewalk.
My Aunt Peg was also the fashion expert of her time. She could look at what someone was wearing and calculate to a penny how much it had cost and where it was purchased.
One of the ladies in the church had her own fashion show going on and she was always the first to be seen wearing something new. She was also built rather sturdily and had a bosom like a mountain range. My Aunt Peg was built like a fashion model and was also very vain. She didn’t have kids so she could afford to spend like a drunken sailor. My Dad’s Mom was a maestro on the sewing machine and she could eyeball something and a few hours later she would have it ready and it was usually better than anything turned out by the fashion houses in France. I really think that the only reason Aunt Peg went to church was to show off her wardrobe. There was one thing that she thought nobody else knew about. She used to sew labels from other dresses into the ones she had made. As far as she was concerned there was no glory in “Hand Made”. It blew up in her face one time when she wore a dress my Grandma”V” had made and she had sewn the label in.
See it was very rare that both sides of my family would be in the same place. The Irish stuck with their own and the Germans would talk German and Yiddish so the Irish imagined that they were criticizing them. (I learned quite a bit of German and Yiddish under other tables.) A friend of both families ran into my Grandma and told her about the beautiful dress my Aunt Peg had worn to a wedding. Grandma mentioned that she had made the dress for Aunt Peg and the lady said; “Oh no, it must have been another one. This had the label in it and she showed it to us.” My Mom got her ears filled that day. The next time the family had a dinner at Grannies, (Irish side), my Mom had plenty to say to Aunt Peg. My Grannie and my Aunt Kay were scandalized! My Aunt Kay had to leave the room and I heard her laughing in the back of the house. Aunt Kay was no clotheshorse and she was the first woman in the family to wear slacks. She thought that anyone who paid that much attention to what they wore was just plain silly. She was the youngest and as a result they all called her “Babe”. She had her two boys one right after the other and didn’t have time to worry about fancy dresses.
Oh, My German Granma never made another thing for my Aunt Peg. She told my Mom that if she ever changed her name to Coco Chanel she might think about it.
Another phrase I heard was “Financially Embarrassed”. Sounded like a piggy bank was blushing but it was just a nicer way of saying “Broke”.
There was something called “Female Trouble”. It covered almost anything that a woman could have. The first HMO was started in my Grannie’s dining room. They discussed symptoms that Great-Aunt Millie had and then they discussed the possible treatment.
Treatments went from Bridget’s frying pan liberally applied to Great-Uncle Jake’s head to having a short glass of wine with lunch. Never did figure out what called for what but it seemed to work well eventually.
While the men discussed sports and politics the women talked about who had the worst hairstyle and dressed like a nun. My Grannie hated Mamie Eisenhower’s hairdo. She thought it made her look like a Teddy bear. Why do you think it took so long for women to get the right to vote? They weren’t voting for the politicians. They were voting for the wives and daughters of politicians. This may come to pass for Hilary Clinton if she ever gets her hair done right, She’s more likely to get elected President than Sarah Palin. When I think of what my Grannie and her girls would have to say at that table about Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and all those other skirt chasers….!
As I got older I figured out what some of those things I overheard under the table meant.
Talking to my youngest daughter I realized she didn’t have any idea of what some of these phrases stood for. Here she is almost 40 years old and has no idea what “Stealing a March on the Preacher” is what she would call “Friends with Benefits”. She didn’t have a clue about “An Embarrassing Condition”! Her generation would have called it “Knocked Up”.
“Springtime Widow with Children” would be “Babies Momma”. “A Real Nun” meant too mean or ugly to grab a man. (If you put “Pious” or “Devout” with it it would mean WAY too mean or ugly! There was an “Upstate” cousin named Cissie who entered the convent at the ripe old age of 16. She was not old or ugly but she was painfully shy. She stayed in until she turned 24 and then she jumped over the wall. She had met a man who was as shy as she was and they ran off to Chicago and got married.
Her family was mortified! This was NEVER done and then she went ahead and DID it!
I think she turned Episcopalian and they had about 6 kids. Eventually her family did forgive her for running away and getting married. They never did forgive her for turning Episcopalian. I only knew her name as “Cissie, God Forgive Her”.
Whenever I asked my Mom about something I heard “Under The Table”, most of the time I was told; “You’ll understand when you get older.” My Aunt Kay was the one I would ask and she would give me the straight scoop. No explanations, mind you, but simple answers. Many years later she told me that she and my Uncle Leo had “Stolen A March On the Preacher” and my oldest cousin was two and a half months premature. He was a big baby and if he had stayed in the full nine months he would have come out with a driver’s license. His younger brother took a full nine months and just like my Dad said;
“The first one comes anytime. The ones after that take nine months.” My parents were married 10 years before I showed up. I think my Mom wanted to make sure that if the “Upstate” cousins were counting she’d come out alright.
I recommend that you consider parking your girl babies under the table. You won’t have to worry about sex education being taught in the schools.
By Swampetta (SWAMPETTA@aol.com)