The Words of My People

The words of my people are no longer spoken. My people came to this country with nothing a century and a half ago. A century later they had little more than nothing. My people were country people, and they lived on farms. When farming became the same as suicide they moved their families to the cities, and they built roads and painted houses, but they never fully understood that they’d left the country behind.

I knew my people when I was a boy, and they felt pride, and they had no regrets. They raised big families, because that’s what farmers did. Their children raised small families, and their children’s children raised tiny families, or no families at all. The generation of my people who left their farms is now gone, and their children are nearly gone, and the children who remain are no different from the children of any other people. We are not adequate vessels to carry the spirit of my people.

The language of a people defines them. It’s difficult to think of something without naming it. Saying the words makes the thing real to us. The way you say the words declares where you stand in that reality. Many of my people’s words I have never heard elsewhere. They sound strange and crude and backward to modern ears. You may laugh at them, and I guarantee that my people would feel fine about that. My people liked to laugh.

From my earliest memories I recall the phrase Tear up a cast iron jackass. Most of the time it arrived as part of the sentence, “I swear to God, you kids would tear up a cast iron jackass!” You can imagine the kind of thing that prompted this, because I suspect you were a child once yourself. When this phrase appeared, a smart child ceased what he was doing and found a place to hide. My people harbored no doubts about the value of corporal punishment.

On rare occasions my people would say Ain’t been so happy since the pigs ate my little brother. These words appeared when something good happened, such as, “Sears fixed my refrigerator for free. I ain’t been so happy since the pigs ate my little brother.” Clearly this idiom sprang from growing up in large and contentious families. It wasn’t used seriously—all my people of those generations had brothers or sisters who died in childhood. This phrase does say a lot about their understanding of the nature of pigs though.

My people reserved this last phrase for dire situations. This idiom is Makes my ass want to take a dip of snuff. Only extremely unpleasant events warranted this phrase. For example, “I had kidney stones last week. Made my ass want to take a dip of snuff.” I lack even a decent guess about where this phrase came from. Somebody knew about snuff, and clearly they knew enough to say that sticking it in your behind would be unpleasant. But stating that your ass actually desires such a thing is remarkable. My people outdid themselves in this case.

We were a raucous clan, with our own history and way of looking at the world. We’ve become a few cousins who rarely cross paths. One of the last of my people lies dying tonight, and when he goes then one of the last chapters of my people’s story will go with him.

Makes my ass want to take a dip of snuff.

3 Responses to The Words of My People

  1. Steven Reneau says:

    I too mourn the loss of our past. It may be a good thing though. They lived in a simpler time with problems and successes that made sense. Work hard, help each other out and celebrate when good things happened. Now familes are spread all over hell and back and our neighbors are strangers. The support network that our parents and grandparents enjoyed no longer exists.
    I don’t think they would trade their lives for ours, trade the richness of human spirit for the richness of material things.

  2. Linnea says:

    This is so touching, and so true. I don’t know the roots of my people well enough to tell a story like this, but I know that as a child I was often threatened to be traded for a “pole cat” and it wasn’t until I was nearly old enough to buy my own beer that I knew what that meant.

    Also, I was about to cry there at the end, then I laughed so hard that I cried anyway at the final line. Well said, sir!

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