Old Phrases Never Die
My eighteen-month-old granddaughter, Riley, recently spent three nights in the hospital fighting a serious bout with asthma. For two of those days I watched my daughter sit on the hospital bed, holding that little gal who fought for every breath. My tiny Texas cyclone, as we call her, was listless and desperate, and it hurt my heart because there was nothing I could do to help. She turned the corner that third day and I had to step into the hallway for a long moment to regain my emotions: the stalwart, solid grandpa who shows no fear in times of crisis.
Relieved that Riley was all right, I wanted to make a couple of calls to let my folks know. Halfway through the parking lot, I jolted to a stop. There was no one in my family to call because they were all at the hospital. Everyone else, my parents and grandparents, old aunts and uncles, are all gone.
That’s when I realized I was the Old Man now. I’m the Elder my children turn to, the one who answers questions when they need direction, or ask about their ancestors, or seek an explanation. It reminded me of why I began the Red River mystery series in the first place. It was the desire to tell a story, of course, but also to preserve a way of life that was quickly disappearing from our landscape.
My first novel, The Rock Hole, was sparked by something my maternal grandmother used to say: “We’re from up on the river.” From there, the book set in 1964 rural northeast Texas, was anchored in the customs, lifestyles, mannerisms, and speech of those folks who’d survived the Great Depression and scratched out their lives on small cotton farms.
As the mystery thriller evolved, I found myself recalling my relatives’ phrases and expressions. These “spices” sprinkled throughout the book brought out the true flavor of the times. To add authenticity, I talked with those same folks and found that when I mentioned something from our past, they brightened and in turn recalled something else that found a place in series.
Readers became fascinated with those phrases and memories as the series evolved. Young people asked me for definitions of long-forgotten words. Even my editors were stymied by such words as dikes, (wire cutters), singletree (horse harness), billdukey (sharpshooter shovel), hob (the covered hole in top of a wood stove), or caissons (tires).
Our regional phrases became items of interest as fans read: Fair-to-middlin’, hissy fit, holler calf rope, pulling boles, step-ins, crazy as a Bessie bug, bless her heart, ginning around, high cotton, hug my neck, playing possum, or Sunday clothes.
That’s when I knew these books offered much more than a story to be read and placed on a shelf. In addition to being mystery thrillers, they became repositories of a fading way of life.
I wanted to preserve those fading customs and language as well as that way of life, so the characters in the Red River books gained a life of their own. Constable Ned Parker and his Choctaw wife, Miss Becky, remember the simple life in the early part of the 20th century and struggle with the changes they face in the turbulent 1960s.
Dark Places, the fifth and most recent Red River novel, carries on those ideas and storylines, and we see the characters driven by a variety of outside influences. Pepper is pulled into the hippie counterculture and runs away to join the throng of kids headed for Haight-Ashbury. Constable Ned Parker and Pepper’s father, James, follow her trail down Route 66 while at the same time back in rural Center Springs, Texas, Sheriff Cody Parker investigates the disappearance of Dallas businessmen and a fatal hit-and-run that might be connected. Then, there’s the mysterious man named Crow who joins Constable Parker in his search for his granddaughter.
I sincerely hope that when I am long gone and the memories of my own children and grandchildren have finally winked out, my descendants and new readers will enjoy these memories and a way of life that was both wonderful and difficult.
Go to my website at www.reaviszwortham.com if you need explanation for such old- timey words as barditch, bumfuzzled, horse apple, yonder, tea cake, ’toe sack, dukins.