I suppose every family has a private vocabulary, sometimes even a whole private language, in which to signal its secrets and share its own sensibilities—or structures of feeling, as the British cultural historian Raymond Williams called them. In India, when she wanted to silence me in front of guests, my mother would speak to me in Greek: oxi tora (“not now”) was one of her favorites, delivered in low, warning tones. At the other end of the spectrum was den peirazei (“it doesn’t matter”), which never failed to reassure.
I still use the greeting, “Heuch!” to convey an untranslateable sense of reassurance and acceptance of things as they are. It came from a story called The Nung-Guama, a Chinese folk tale in Once Long Ago, a collection of stories from around the world that belonged to my sister. The Nung-Guama was a horribly ugly demon that lay in wait for an old woman on her lonely way home. Although she evaded it on the road, the Nung-Guama came for her in the night. But the old woman was ready for it and foiled its home invasion with ingenious, albeit rather gruesome, booby traps (reminiscent of the movie Home Alone). Heuch, Heuch! was the terrible slathering sound the Nung-Guama made, and my father, reading to us at night, rendered it with gusto. Funnily enough, when uttered in our private language it wasn’t threatening, but on the contrary, had a rather soothing effect.
We had the habit of picking up phrases from the books our parents read to us. One of Dad’s favorites was Uncle Blunder’s Studio, in which a black beetle, deciding that he wanted to become an artist, donned a beret and beatnik attire and set up a studio. The birds and animals in the neighborhood reacted according to type, including Freddie Frog, who asserted repeatedly, and with perennial good cheer, “Green’s a good colour.” (This long predated the Black Pride movement’s “Black is Beautiful,” not to mention Kermit de Frog’s It’s Not Easy Being Green.) We would repeat the phrase apropros of nothing whenever the urge took us.
We quoted another favorite book to rally a family member when he or she was feeling low. In The Magic Pudding, the Australian classic by Norman Lindsay, whenever things went wrong for Sam Sawnoff, the Penguin Bold, or Bill Barnacle the sailor (usually meaning that their magic pudding had been stolen by the professional pudding thieves), they would fling themselves on the ground in the depths of despondency, until the genteel but stout-hearted Bunyip Bluegum exhorted them to gird their loins and galvanize themselves into action: “Come, come, this is no time for giving way to despair!” He continued, in hilariously elevated language: “Let us, rather, by the fortitude of our bearing prove ourselves superior to this misfortune and, with the energy of justly enraged men, pursue these malefactors, who have so richly deserved our vengeance. Arise!” His oratory never failed to revive his rough-and-ready comrades (“those gallant words have fired our blood,” said Sam) and send them purposefully on their way, in pursuit of the thieves and their precious pudding.
The Tintin comic books provided us with hours of enjoyment, and we laughed out loud at Captain Haddock’s terror of Bianca Castafiore, the opera singer who was sweet on him. Madame Castafiore, “the Milanese Nightingale,” had a formidable bust and a voice that shattered glass. “Ah my beauty, past compare!” we would warble in delight. Later, in the States, when we were introduced to The Addams Family on TV, we revelled in Morticia’s slinkiness and breathed, “¡Querida!”, her adoring husband Gomez’s favorite term of endearment, as he ran delirious kisses all the way up her arm.
Of course we revelled in insults too, as teenagers do, and for those we had Lost in Space, in which Dr. Zachary Smith had an an inexhaustible treasure trove of terms of abuse with which to address the robot. My personal favorite was “You bubble-headed booby!” but there were dozens more.
More satisfying than abuse is always sheer silliness, for which Monty Python’s Flying Circus had no peer. To this day we quote from the parrot sketch (“He’s not dead, just pining for the fjords”) and the Spam sketch (“Hush dear, don’t make a fuss. I’ll have your spam. I love it! I’m having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans and spam”), and regularly echo John Cleese’s desire for “cheesy comestibles” in the cheese-free Cheese Shop.
Laughs aside, in the main family sayings served to soothe. When I was about eleven my mother organized a home production of Amahl and the Night Visitors over the winter school break; typing up the script herself, she made a small typo. Amahl consoles his poverty-stricken mother who has no food in the house at Christmastime: “Don’t cry, mother, don’t worry for me; if we must go begging, a beggar I’ll be.” Only, Mum’s typescript read, “Don’t cry mothre…” That little error had a long afterlife. For years I would repeat to her (though probably, given her nature, to no avail), “Don’t cry, mothré, don’t worry for me.”
And so into the next generation, from worry to wonder. When in turn I became a mother, I read my favorite childhood books to my son, who, quite naturally, didn’t care for some of them, but loved others with a far greater passion than I had ever done. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series for instance: I had read the first one and perhaps the second, but found myself tracking down all twelve for Nikhil and reading them for hours at bedtime as he pleaded piteously, “Just one more chapter!” (Not that it took much arm-twisting on his part; I enjoyed the nightly reading ritual every bit as much as he did.) Looking back, I see the beginnings of his love of poetry, as he pricked up his ears at the evocatively named promontory from which the children gazed at Wildcat Island. When I read him Keats’s poem, like “stout Cortez” and the Walker children (with their inevitably colonial imaginations), he found himself awestruck: “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”