Friday, May 14, 2010

mother tongue

Some families are multi-lingual - growing up with Spanish, Italian, or Chinese spoken in the home. In my family we spoke English, but our mother tongue was an ancient language of whistles and raised eyebrows that seasoned parents have spoken throughout the ages. One might be surprised by how many phrases and reprimands can be communicated with pursed lips and furrowed brow.
My sister Jennifer and I shared a bedroom. At nighttime after we’d been tucked into bed, Jen and I could get a little loud with our talking and giggling. If things progressed to volume levels that could be heard downstairs, Dad’s two-noted whistle came wafting up from the family room like the smell of burned popcorn quickly changing our mood to furtive, muffled goodnight whispers followed by a quick silence. To outsiders who didn’t understand “the language,” Dad’s whistle might sound melodious and pretty, to us it was a warning cry of impending doom, for if we continued to make noise, one of us would surely spend the night in the lonely downstairs guest bedroom.
My mother is not a whistler; she speaks eyebrow. From a distance of 30 feet, she can give you a punishing eyebrow lashing that will bring tears to your eyes. If necessary, she has a whisper-yell chaser that will knock you straight if her eyebrows didn’t quite do the trick. In the 70’s it was popular to wear underwear monogrammed with the days of the week. These mother-invented undergarments were the bane of children everywhere for it became immediately evident on laundry day that someone hasn’t been changing her underwear. My mother, holding up only Monday and Thursday panties, could shoot me a wicked raised-brow that could kill a cat. No words necessary.
Once you’ve grown up learning “the language” you never forget it. At forty-six when I see a wrinkled brow or hear that familiar two-tone whistle, I flush with anger thinking, “What? What am I doing wrong?” before I realize I’m not being corrected, it’s just someone calling his dog.