My brother and I did everything we could to keep our grandmother from laughing on Thursdays. At least in the wintertime.
That was no easy task given there was little in life the old woman liked better than a good belly laugh. Said it prevented indigestion, promoted solid bowel movements, and reduced suicidal urges.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you,” she’d say cheerily. “Cry and all you get’s snot on your lip.”
Her name was Bobo, for no reason anybody in the family could recall, and she was my hero, my role model, and my best friend. She was also the first writer I ever knew, though not in the traditional definition of the word.
My great aunts and uncles claimed that Bobo came into the world squalling so loud and so hard she blew out all her “filters.” From that moment on, whenever she opened her mouth, her unedited thoughts flopped out. Even as a child, she said exactly what was on her mind as soon as it crossed her mind—a trait she displayed well into her nineties. But what made a lasting impression on me, what shaped me, even determined the career I’d chose in life was not so much what she said as what she wrote down.
Some of my most vivid childhood memories are images of my white-haired, hunch-backed grandmother with a for-real “fountain pen,” the stub of a No. 2 lead pencil or one of those fancy, clicking, ball-point thingies in her hand jotting something down in her little notebook. Or on a gum wrapper, a paper napkin, or the back of a grocery store receipt. She used whatever she could lay hands on to capture what she called “shiny talk,” her phrase for a particularly colorful use of language.
Much of the colorful language in our house wasn’t fit for repetition, of course. My father was a Marine Corps drill instructor—’nuff said. Though we were a gregarious lot who talked long, loud and with flair, the whole world was the source of Bobo’s material.
“That lawn mower sounds like a chain saw cutting through tin,” she jotted down in scrawling, arthritic handwriting on the back of an envelope after our next-door neighbor dropped by for a visit. When she saw me reading it, she added, “Charlie was right. I heard it. Felt like somebody was shaving my ears off with a cheese grater.”
“… the truth in long-johns with the butt flap down.” She overheard that remark at the table next to ours in a Mexican food restaurant and printed it in ink on a napkin—a cloth napkin that she proceeded to stuff into her coat pocket.
I always thought the best “shiny talk” was her own.
When she took out her false teeth, her face from the nose down imploded and she looked like one of those Appalachian apple dolls. Her toothlessness gave her speech a peculiar flubbery sound I can still hear in my head, urging me to eat more.
“Sugar, you’re skinny as a fried egg, you know that don’t you. Flat-chested as one, too.”
Or to behave properly.
“You don’t straighten up, young lady, I’ll skin you alive with a potato peeler.”
Or to say grace before a meal.
“You got to pray over it cause eatin’ unblessed food’ll give you the runs.”
I don’t know when I started to jot down shiny talk on my own. Seems now I’ve always done it. I once had yellowed spiral notebooks full words and phrases in little-kid scrawl. And knock-knock jokes, too—the highest form of humor. Though a lifetime of moves eventually ate the notebooks, the habit that created them years ago remains. I have an Always Always Language List on my iPhone and on the desktop of my computer. (Always Always—to remind me how often to listen for creative language usage and how often to write it down.)
The only time I ever asked Bobo why she wrote down shiny talk, she shook her head and looked at me sadly, as if it was truly pitiful that I didn’t understand something so obvious to her.
“It’s catchin’ a firefly in a Mason jar, Sugar,” she said. “So you can watch it glow, all shiny—like words glow. Then you got to let it go.”
I hate to break the spell of that heartfelt, touching scene, but I need to point out that she said it on a Thursday. In the wintertime. And then she burst out laughing.
“I swear, chile, you’d believe me if I told you dust bunnies was spiders turned wrong side out. Lots of life don’t make no sense. Some things just is what they is.”
I glanced over at my brother. Yup, Bobo coming in out of the cold after her Thursday hair appointment … standing over the grate of the floor furnace shivering … her weak bladder … and when she laughed, the psssst, psssst, psssst sound, and stench, that rose up from the grill—it was, indeed, part of the grand mystery of life.
And I tried, I really did, to come up with some shiny talk to describe this heartwarming domestic scene. Couldn’t do it.
Some things just is what they is.
*Author’s Note: Those of you who’ve read The Memory Closet have already met Bobo, or a reasonable facsimile. She showed up unannounced on page three of my only first-person novel, unpacked her bags, and moved in. Out of dozens of characters in seven novels, Bobo stands out. Many readers say she’s their favorite. I’m rather partial to her myself.
Ninie Hammon’s latest novel, The Last Safe Place, was published in March 2013 by Kingstone Media.