In this post, you can come to know my mom through her own words. Be sure to check out These are a few of her favorite things to get to know her through the things she enjoys - and experience some of them for yourself!
My mom was constantly spouting aphorisms. To me, these were hackneyed old expressions, repeated thousands of times in my life. But others have pointed out many of them are unique, or so archaic as to be unheard of. Now that it's too late to hear them from her, my brother and sister are trying to gather together as many of them as they can. Here are a few:
Bury me with my car keys in my hand
When we were young - and even not-so-young - my mom was the primary source of transportation, constantly driving from place to place. When I was at Governor's School in Pittsburgh in 1984, when I was living in Delaware in 1989-1991, my mom thought nothing of hopping in her car and driving hundreds of miles. It is traditional for Catholics to be buried with a rosary in their hand. She felt it would be more appropriate to bury her with her car keys.
|My mom, her 1990 Toyota Tercel, and our newly acquired (first-ever)|
cat Josephine outside of my apartment in Newark, Delaware, 1990
For many years she used the same set of keys. I learned to recognize the specific chinging noise they made when she handled them, so I could tell when she was home just by hearing those keys outside.
(In the end - after everyone else had left the funeral home, before we closed the casket - we placed a keychain with the key from the car she drove until 2014 in her hand, alongside the rosary.)
Did I ever tell you I hate night driving?
For as much as my mom loved to drive, she hated driving at night. I suspect this was due to astigmatism, which produces star-spikes around lights at night. Later in life she would develop cataracts, which were surgically removed, but her vision became uncorrectably diminished in the last few years due to macular degeneration. In those years I have amassed a large number of magnifiers to help her read, especially the obituaries that she checked faithfully every morning for as long as I have known her.
My favorite pages
For as long as I have known her, since at least when she was in her 30s, my mom has always been obsessed with the obituary pages. This would be the first thing she checked in the paper every morning. Even when she was in the hospital, she would have us bring in the obituary section and read her the obituaries every day. Every once in a while she would find someone she knew from school or work or from the customers she met while working at the bank. She once appeared in the obituary pages herself, sort of, when a woman with the same first and last name who lived about ten miles away died. We found this amusing until messages of condolence started coming in, particularly from her old dentist. She will finally get her chance to really and truly appear in the obituaries herself.
She would have gotten a huge kick out of being front and center on the Obituaries page, as befits an obituary superfan.
God made you upside-down - your nose runs and your feet smell
Said to my nephews when they were toddlers.
|Rear: Brother-in-law John Castagna, son Jerry, |
longtime parish priest and personal friend Fr. James Nash
Front: Grandsons Jeffrey and Joseph, Eleanor Jenkins
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
This one I think is fairly universal, but it's good to remember. If there's a problem, if there's an issue, make a fuss about it and demand help or additional resources. Suffering in silence won't get you any additional help.
Take a cold potato and wait
An admonition for patience. You want a baked potato? So does everyone else, and they got in line ahead of you. Wait your turn, and you will be taken care of.
Disheveled, scattered, or disorganized, in appearance or in thoughts. Also discombobulated.
|At my sister's with her cat Cosmo|
|My mom with my sister's cat Jack|
The guy it doesn't hurt it doesn't bother.
A Polish phrase about "having skin in the game," or being a "stakeholder." If you're not personally invested in an issue, it's pretty easy to not let it concern you.
They only whip the mule that pulls the load. (alternatively, "horse")
Teamwork is great, except when it isn't. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a group project or been on a team with someone who is happy to let everyone else do the work. Maybe several someones. Maybe it's everyone but one person. And when it's time to improve the performance of the group or team, it's the one person who is doing the work who gets leaned on to work harder.
"Old soldiers never die, they just fade away"
A snippet of an old song she would sing out once in a while, usually when someone was complaining about hard work.
Blessed are they who go in circles, they shall be known as wheels
Referencing people who engage in frustrating activity. Derived from "Blessed are they who talk in circles, they shall become big wheels," which has a totally different meaning.
Par for the course
A way of expressing resigned disgust at a frustratingly typical outcome from an essentially rigged situation. No more or less than what can be reasonably expected.
|With her grandson Jeffrey as the Little Drummer Boy for a church play|
One is as much in the muck as the other is in the mire.
Another universal, possibly only for Polish speakers. A friend whose parents were very Polish often referred to a local law firm as Muck & Mire back when we were in college. It means that in a dispute where two people each claim the moral high ground, odds are it belongs to neither.
You have wind under your nose, use it!
A Polish saying, specific to dealing with hot soup, encouraging the hearer to cool their soup by blowing on it.
Why are there more horse's asses than there are horses?
No explanation needed, I think. Referring to human stupidity, especially in the realm of politics.
Jesus, Mary, and Josephine!
A substitute for any interjection involving the Holy Family.
God Bless America
Used in place of other interjections typically seen to take God's name in vain.
|With her grandson Joseph's pit bull mix Nova. They absolutely loved each other. |
Polish for "Our Lady." Another interjection - more like a prayer for intercession. Generally used in the sense "give me strength."
Another frequent prayer for strength, pronounced pretty much like it would be in Spanish (with "Jesus" being more like "Yay-zeus" than "Hey-zeus.")
Jezu kochanie (pronounced Yay-zeus kohani - go here for an audio version)
Literally "Jesus baby." It doesn't mean "Baby Jesus" but apparently translates as "Jesus, baby!"
Running around like a cat shot in the ass
A rare vulgarity, indicating that someone was behaving in a frantic manner, or was being forced to do too much in too little time.
Tables are made for glasses, not asses
And another one. When we were kids we would often sit on tables, countertops, wherever. This is what she always told us when she would shoo us off the tables.
Don't have a pot to piss in
And another. A euphemism for being poor, often for people who pretend to be well-off.
Up your nose with a rubber hose!
Yes, it's from Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979.) Yes, she was still saying it 45 years later.
Referring to recipes that are so simple anyone could make them. I'm not sure which recipes these are.
May you boil in oil!
An old phrase of unknown provenance. I've heard an audio clip of a comedian from the 1940s saying it, I think. My mom would use it as a facetious curse, often when someone has just presented her with a particularly fattening gift.
Lord, you keep pickin' them up, and I'll keep puttin' them down
A prayer for strength while soldiering on. Seems like an old saying, but I can't find any references online.
|My grandmother (lower center) and her children. Sent by cousin Marie. Her |
mother Theodosia (aka Tozia, lower right) kept this photo on her nightstand.
Going to see a man about a dog (alt.: horse)
Adults sometimes have to do things they don't want children to know about. This was a catchall answer - usually originating with my grandmother - whenever any of us kids would ask too many questions about what someone was doing and where they were going. Apparently originally used "horse," but the notion of going to see a man about a horse would just be too interesting for a kid to not immediately want to know more.
My hair looks like Witchiepoo!
My mom has always had a head of curly blonde locks, even when it's been a long time since her last perm. One of the last things she had asked me to do before her stroke was locate her bag of curlers and bring them up to Allied Rehab. Whenever her hair was getting out of control she would compare her appearance to Witchiepoo, the Billy Hayes character from the 1970s children's program H.R. Pufnstuf.
This is for the birds
A dismissive statement about a situation or procedure for being needlessly complicated or bureaucratic.
You're full of canal water!
A nicer way of saying "You're full of crap."
Doohickey with a wing-wang
Doohickey was once a common expression to vaguely reference something specific whose name and general description have been forgotten. A doohickey with a wing-wang is distinct from a garden-variety doohickey.
|With her brother Tony's sons and their children|
Don't know beans from baloney
A less-vulgar version of "You don't know your ass from a hole in the ground." Also "you don't know shit from shinola."
Assume everyone else is an idiot who is trying to kill you
Pennsylvania auto inspection stickers used to bear the motto "DRIVE DEFENSIVELY." I once asked her what it means, and this is what she told me. Best driving advice I've ever gotten.
The flit hit the shan
Another prettied-up version of a phrase, in this case "The shit hit the fan."
She frequently used this word for "umbrella." Wikipedia lists this as "rare, facetious American slang."
The big chicken
How she would sometimes refer to airplanes, especially when there were kids involved. One of her fondest memories of her later life was a flight she took to Disneyworld with my brother and his children about ten years ago. They had a great time, and left as massive storms entered Orlando, causing a rare shutdown of the Disney properties there.
A recent addition to her collection. Cute when heard once or twice. Not so cute when you hear it twenty-seven times a day.
I'm standing in a hole!
My mom was shorter than most, and lost additional height as she entered her 70s and 80s. This was her explanation for her height.
|My graduation from the University of Scranton, May 1989|
Looks like a dog's breakfast
I picked up a piece of clothing to be part of my funeral outfit. It was slightly wrinkled from months of sitting unused, but I figured it would smooth out upon being worn. "It looks like a dog's breakfast," I heard my mom say, as she had a thousand times before when my clothes were looking rumpled or disheveled. I tossed it in the wash to smooth out the wrinkles.
This was the form when applied to clothing. When applied to the person wearing the clothing, it was You look like an unmade bed. (I remembered that when I saw myself in the mirror after spending the night at the hospice.)
There are a lot of weak links in the system.
Derived from "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Used to express exasperation with bureaucratic incompetence, suggesting that the problems are being cause by multiple incompetent individuals.
Those that mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind
I don't recall hearing this one, but my cousin said she said it to her all the time.
The dumb guy won't notice and the smart one will think that's the way it's supposed to be
Not sure if this is exactly right.
Everyone's queer except thee and me, and even thee is a little queer sometimes.
This came from her mother, and means "people are funny" - not in a "funny ha-ha" way, but in a "fundamentally irrational" sense.
Better than a sharp stick in the eye
This is from her brother Tony, suggesting that an outcome might not be ideal, but could be worse.
My knees are talking to me
As I sat up from the soft cushy couch at the hospice I said this out loud, and then remembered the hundreds of times my mom said it before she got both knees replaced.
Tired blood and pooped arteries/Old bag of bones
Referring to herself.
Bag of beans
Referring to a baby or small child.
|Making Christmas cookies with her niece Dena's daughter Lily|
This is an approximate pronunciation of something she has always used as a low-level interjection of exasperation. Turns out the word that is actually being said is "Cholera!" Google Translate provides a good example of the Polish pronunciation. Often accompanied by "Psia krew!" - "Dog blood!", pronounced something like "Sha kref!"
More (whatever) than Carter's got little liver pills
Carter's Little Liver Pills were a real thing, a patent medicine first formulated in 1868. I thought this was unique to her until I saw a reference in MAD Magazine.
I feel like a wet noodle
She used this one a lot in recent years. It indicates a feeling of listlessness and low evergy.
Who woulda thunk it?
Suggesting that something that has come as a surprise should not have.
Wrong Way Corrigan
Two things she would say to us when we were kids, references to things that were common knowledge in the 1940s. Coxey's Army was a march of unemployed men demanding assistance in 1894. She would use this to refer to a motley collection of kids, or ragamuffins. Wrong Way Corrigan was an aviator who, in 1938, "accidentally" flew a transatlantic flight from Brooklyn to Ireland instead of Long Beach, California. She would use this whenever any of us was meandering in the wrong direction.
Handsome is as handsome does
A reminder that having a good character is more important than having a good appearance, and character is expressed through deeds.
Let the baby have the peanut, and you take the shell
An admonition about sharing for older children dealing with younger children.
Enough to feed the Chinese Army
Referring to an excess of food. We always had leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer. She would refer to meals cooked ahead of time and frozen for weeks or months as her Ace in the Hole.
Like a Chinese fire drill
An archaic expression referring to a state of chaos and confusion.
You could screw up a one-car parade (or funeral)
An accusation of chaotic incompetence.
A Yiddish or Hebrew expression of alarm or cry for help - literally "Oh, violence!" More often used by my mom as an expression of exasperation.
She also used "Oy vey" from time to time, and occasional other Yiddish phrases. That, coupled with the fact that there was a large home-made Star of David in my grandmother's basement, made me wonder if we might be crypto-Jews. This was not the case, however: My mother's Uncle Jack was caretaker at a local orphanage, and one Christmas was tasked with making a Star of Bethlehem for a school celebration. Five-pointed stars are hard to make, harder than a six-pointed star that is just two overlapping triangles. So that's what he made, and that year the children of the orphanage had a Star of David hanging over their Christmas festivities.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa
From the Latin Mass: "My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault." Used to facetiously accept responsibility for some disaster that was in no way her responsibility.
That's not even nice
Said to express disapproval at something someone has said or done, usually something incomprehensibly rude or offensive, with that someone usually being me.
You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar
A fairly common phrase that she repeated a lot, admonishing you to be nice if you are trying to win people over to your way of thinking. I formulated my own response, based on observations of the Fox News Channel: if you really want to catch flies, you need a rotting corpse or a big pile of manure.
A not-uncommon term for chicken soup. She loved chicken soup, and I made it as often as I could.
Take, tatoes, and balls
This might have come from my sister. Ground round steak served with mashed potatoes and canned peas.
Good night and God bless you
Her nightly statement as we all went to bed. Used in other contexts, like the closing of a phone conversation at the end of the night. My sister told me that she was the one who was taught this as a goodnight statement by nuns in first grade, and in turn taught it to my mom.
|Showing Lily the eclipse of 2017|
Zostań z bogiem (Remain with God)
Idź z Bogiem (Go with God)
A Polish call-and-response for departing from a visit. The first line is said by the departing visitor, the second by the host. We always said this, or a phonetic approximation of it, when we left my grandmother's house - later, when we left my grandmother's room at the nursing home. Each Polish phrase above has a link to the pronunciation.
A childhood term for nighttime prayers. Often applied to our chihuahua Chico, who would sometimes sit with his paws folded as in prayer. "Are you saying your Bozie Amen?"
Make plans and God laughs
Another common phrase, but one that I particularly hate, because it implies that God is a sadist, cackling as he thwarts the plans of his pathetic playthings. But I guess that's what's going on right now: for three years I fanatically protected her from COVID - until one day, God laughed and said, nope, bang, you've got COVID, and blood clots, and a stroke, and now you die.
Most of my life she used a gentler formulation of this sentiment: "Man proposes, God disposes."
|Accidental capture of my mom coming out of Christmas Eve mass in 2015. |
I was trying to get an image of the Full Moon next to the church steeple.
Nothing stays the same
I was her chauffeur wherever she needed to go the last ten years or so. As we drove along well-traveled routes I often commented on the changing landscape, on places that had closed and been torn down, empty lots and culm banks and tracts of wildlife-filled wilderness that had been turned into warehouses, call centers, and distribution centers. I could see these places as vividly as they once were as they now are. She would chide me not to dwell in the past. "Nothing stays the same," she would say, recognizing that both nature and human enterprise grind on, whether we like it or not.
"If" is a king
She would attribute this to my father. An admonition not to get lost in and filled with despair by counterfactuals. IF I hadn't allowed her to get dehydrated. IF she hadn't gotten up from the table five minutes before I could have helped her. IF she hadn't fallen and hit her head - not badly, but seriously enough to require me to call 911. IF the ambulance crew that showed up had been wearing masks. IF she hadn't contracted COVID during that trip to the hospital. IF COVID hadn't caused clots to form. IF the surgeon had been able to clear the obstruction and restore normal functioning as he hoped. If. If. If.
What's done 'tis done and cannot be undone
Often said to us as kids when we were railing about some action that had resulted in an outcome we didn't like, usually outcomes of the permanent sort. In time I would learn how to do resets and other tricks to rock things back so "permanent" outcomes were not necessarily permanent, but at the time this seemed like a very harsh statement.
Man's inhumanity to man
My mom loved to watch CNN. It didn't matter if she was getting the same eight or ten stories on infinite repeat, she wanted to see them. But anytime she saw a story involving violations of human dignity she would utter this phrase. In a world of police brutality and Russian crimes against humanity, she used this phrase quite a bit.
Money, money, money (pronounced "Munn-ee munn-ee munn-ee")
Another response to the news, in this case to someone (often a politician or business) screwing others for profit.
If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit
Advice my sister received at a special summer course for speech and debate. My mom used it...a lot. Apparently derived from a W.C. Fields quote.
Old age isn't for sissies - and it doesn't come alone!
Even when she didn't show it, the burdens of old age wore heavy on her. Bad knees (eventually both were replaced,) spinal issues, dental issues, sciatica, cataracts (surgically removed,) macular degeneration, arthritis, loss of manual dexterity, difficulty standing for extended periods... She loved to cook and bake, but hadn't been able to do either in years. She loved to drive (except at night) and hadn't been able to do that in years, either. I was able to give her the illusion of independence, but she hadn't been truly independent in well over a decade. She had been a hard worker all her life, and saw old age as another burden to shoulder.
The advice that she would leave everyone with: "Don't get old." Which always led me to ask, "What's the alternative?"
|February 3, 2023, after she came home from Allied Rehabilitation|
Dynamite comes in small packages - and so does TNT!
This is just a flat-out malapropism that makes no sense. I believe it is derived from the common phrase "Good things come in small packages," referring to her short stature, with the addendum "and so does TNT" which...I guess is true? I've never seen TNT outside of cartoons, as far as I know. Meant to imply that small people are metaphorical firecrackers, which is true, in my experience.
What can I say?
My mom's version of "It is what it is." Don't recall hearing it much, but my brother says she said it all the time.
OK, poopsie baby?
A way of getting confirmation for any statement. Also "poopsiekins."
The Last of the Mohicans
My mom had three brothers and a sister. Now she only has a single brother left. She would call the two of them "The Last of the Mohicans."
I woke up on the right side of the grass this morning!
Used in response to "Hi, how are you," meaning "I'm not dead and buried yet."
One foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel
Another response to questions about how she is doing.
I don't buy any green bananas
Yet another response to questions about how she is feeling, implying she won't live long enough to let green bananas ripen. Ironically, she always insisted on buying green bananas that would keep as long as possible. I last bought her bananas on February 2, 2023, the day before she came home from the rehabilitation center. They're in the refrigerator, their skins brown, but the fruit within creamy and delicious.
What are you doing on that computer all day?
OK, maybe that was just me.
After my mom was found exhibiting the symptoms of a massive stroke in bed at the rehab center, she was rushed to the ER and given a "clotbuster" drug in an effort to reverse the effects of the stroke and begin the recovery. It worked - briefly, maybe a half hour. My brother was already at the ER when this was happening, and he attempted to engage her in conversation. Seeing how messed-up her hair was, he joked that her hair looked beautiful. "Yeah, baloney'' she responded. Shortly afterwards she again lost the ability to talk. "Yeah, baloney" were her last coherent words.