Children are nothing if they are not literal. My mom once told our neighbor Donald, “See you later.” When we returned home after their long conversation, I all of a sudden began questioning my mother about when we’d see Donald again.
“I dunno,” she said as she nuked a cup of coffee.
“But you told him we’d see him later. Is he coming over?” I asked on the edge of confusion.
“No, we just stood there and talked for half an hour. I think we’ve seen enough of each other for the day.”
“Then why did you say ‘see you later?’” I asked restating the question and desperate to get answers.
With a wave of her hand she answered, “Oh, that’s just a figure of speech.” Apparently exhausted from the long conversation with Donald she headed to her room to put up her feet and enjoy her decaf coffee.
It would have been good if she would have hung around to answer more of my questions, because at the age of ten I didn’t understand the logic of “figure of speech.” Adults were always saying things they didn’t mean and it usually ended up in a lot of unhappiness and confusion. My tiny brain strained to understand the purpose in telling someone you’d see them later if you actually had no present intention of seeing them in the near future.
This went back to the other phrase I didn’t understand: “how are you?” Seemingly when asked this question I was supposed to say something like “good” or “fine,” but by no means was I supposed to actually divulge anything specific about how I was really doing. Kids by nature do not know these rules until we are taught and upon that day we turn into people who say things we don’t mean and censor our answers to that which is appropriate. Probably one of my favorite parts of being a child, and the part that I have long missed is the right to be inappropriate. I long for a day when I can answer someone’s “how are you” questions with a monologue about a burn I recently received from a hot glue gun and a craving I haven’t been able to shake for cinnamon rolls. Alas, the adult in me is too refined for such shenanigans and so I usually only reply with the phrase, “I’m pretty awesome,” which to my defense I think is a bit of a rebellious answer.
I learned early on that adults don’t just say things they don’t mean and censor their answers, on occasion they also say the opposite of what they mean. One day, hoping to have an elderly lady alter some clothes for me, my mother had stopped over at this seamstress’s house. I was instructed to “hold still” while the ancient woman slid needles around the cuffs of my pants. Her hands shook dangerously from time-to-time and I closed my eyes hoping to leave the woman’s home without any punctures in my body.
Apparently, not worried for my safety my mother bustled around the seamstresses’ living room eyeing the woman’s 1920’s furniture. In the middle of the room was one of those round couches that one might see in a powder room. It was appropriately pale pink. Curtains hung from the tops of the ceiling and draped lavishly along the plush carpet. Everything had thick fringe and tassels, even the pillows that overcrowded the winged chair beside the piano. I had never been in a house like this and I pictured that the woman hadn’t changed a thing since she bought all the furniture seventy years ago. Maybe my mother thought the same thing, but that’s not what she said. Instead, in a high pitched voice, which later I would learn was indicative of lying, my mother began gushing about each and every piece in the seamstresses’ house.
“Oh my, your home is so unbelievably beautiful! Is this china, here in the cabinet, Haviland? I have some of that, but I can’t use it or otherwise the kids would break it.” She stomped over to the round sofa, which I found fascinating and desperately wanted to bounce on. “I absolutely love this! I haven’t seen one of these since I was a child. It is sooooo beautiful.”
The lady smiled as she looked up at my mother and then quite unaffected she resumed her shaking and pin pushing.
“And the wallpaper in here really brings this place all together. I would have never thought of putting such an intricate and bold pattern on the walls, but you’ve really made it work! I’d love to do my living room just like this one!”
This wallpaper, in fact, did not work. It was a deep burgundy color and had large green and yellow leaf patterns throughout. The only thing I could think that it matched was the yellow tassels that hung from the table runner that spilled off the piano and hung inches from the blue carpet. I shrugged my shoulders in confusion to why my mother was tracing all over this woman’s house and squeaking like an overexcited school girl.
Half an hour later as we drove across the bridge to the other side of the lake where we lived, I questioned my mom on her strange behavior.
“Do you really want to make over our living room like that ladies?”
“Oh, heavens no!” My mother exclaimed blowing cigarette smoke out the open car window.
“Then why’d you say all that stuff about her furniture?” child-like ignorance more pronounced than ever.
“Honey, I was just trying to be nice. That place was awful. I’ve never seen something so tacky in all my life.”
“Hmm…” I thought, rubbing my arm where I’d been stuck a number of times with a sharp pin. “So the reason why you said all that is so she’d like you?”
“That’s redundant,” my mother stated much to my confusion. “Reason why. That phrase is redundant. You don’t need both of those words together. It’s not necessary.”
I rolled my eyes since I always hated having my grammar corrected. I could be in the middle of telling my most important secret and that wouldn’t stop my mother, the wanna-be English teacher, from pointing out my verbal error.
I rephrased my question, “So the reason you said all that was so the lady would like you?”
Pleased with my progress my mother smiled, “Exactly! I’ll teach you how to speak if it’s the last thing I do!”