29 September 2006

The Name Game

My grandmother has a unique way of talking, and it has gotten more unique the older she gets. Some of it isn't so special: she rarely asks legitimate questions, instead immediately answering whatever question she asks as though she had been asked it. And she doesn't listen but just monologues until she arbitrarily decides it's your turn and then sits in silence until you come up with something. She has only lately taken up the stereotypical elderly conversation topic of illness and ubiquitous symptoms.

So what's especially unique about her way of speaking? She often says peculiar words, replacing legitimate ones with wrong ones (she rarely calls my husband "Micah" but instead "Mike," "Michael," "Mack," or our personal but infrequently used favorite, "Malcolm"). She often uses rather prejudiced language about her African-American neighbors and friends, calling them "her blacks" and saying things like "She sure is nice, if she is black." She has that unmistakable dialect, in rhythm and word choice and philosophy, of her homeland—Comanche, Texas.

She refers to unhealthy 50- or 60-year-olds as "old" (she just turned 91). When you ask her what she's been doing, she says "First one thing and another." She can articulate a treatise on how one should stop loads of laundry before the third rinse cycle to save the water. She often answers the phone with a mouthful of toothpaste because she can't bear to not answer the phone when it rings. She worries about everything all of the time, but she especially likes to discuss her worry about the phone company jilting her by putting her on a party line rather than a private line like she pays for. She also likes to iterate her concern about neighborhood kids stealing her mail or breaking into her garage.

Last night, our conversation eventually circled around to the subject of naming our baby—her first great-grandchild, whether she likes it or not. Here's the rough transcript:

Grandma: I think I'll have some that stew I made yesterday for dinner. Warm up some cornbread later. I'm not hungry now, though—haven't been hungry since yesterday. So, you thought up names for that baby? [It takes me a while to answer this question because she has so quickly shifted topics and because I'm waiting to make sure this she is legitimately asking a question.]

Me: We're coming up with lists. It's hard to decide. [This is the only time throughout the 49-minute conversation that I will say two sentences in a row.]

Grandma: If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't name your daddy.

Me: I don't think they let you leave without a name. [Of course, I don't know if this is true, but how else do you respond to such a comment?]

Grandma: Some of those names have been around a long time, you know. Names are old.

Me: Yeah. [I don't really know what she's talking about. This is just a filler.]

Grandma: Some names coming back now, they've been around. Like mine. [Her name is Esther.] At least I know who I's named after. My mother named me after my Aunt Ethel. [Again, her name is Esther. My goodness.] You hear that noise?

Me: What? No.

She asked me constantly throughout our conversation if I had heard "that noise," which I rarely did. She claimed her air conditioner was acting up, would probably break soon, just like her plumbing—which, notably, did not break but was quickly fixed by a kind repairman and the subsequent MacGyver-work of a neighbor. She claimed she needed to call the phone company because she pays for a private line, not a party line. She claimed that I was washing pots and pans. The only part that seemed true or relevant was that her air conditioner might have come on.

We never returned to the topic of names.


Brent and Kat said...

*GRINS* - Something to look forward to for you, dear, as grand-progeny of said Esther.

My thought? Wouldn't it be more fun to act that way NOW rather than having to wait until 91?

I am going to call the phone company RIGHT NOW and complain about being on the party line, instead of the private one I paid for...

Jen Strange said...

Oh gosh. I didn't mean that as a recommendation. I hereby apologize to the phone company. And to Kathryn, who will now have to live with party-line paranoia in her very own home :)