Out of the mouths of grandmas

By Cindy Phillips

Every once in a while, someone around me will suggest they are going to eat something even though it is late at night. And immediately in my head I can hear my grandmother exclaiming, “It’s gonna lay heavy.”

My grandmother and my aunts had some unique phrases in a language that seemed to be all their own. I still shake my head and giggle when I recall them. I decided it might be good fodder for a Boomer column, but at 60 my memory fails me more often than I care to admit. So I dedicate this column to my sister and fellow writer, Nance Greggs, who sent me a list. Though she is five years older than me, her brain is much sharper when it comes to recalling the “grandma-isms” of our childhood.

“Laying heavy” denoted food items that would give you a stomach ache if eaten after dark—somewhat akin to the timetable for eating before going swimming. You could eat a big batch of grandma’s German pancakes at 9 in the morning, covered in peaches with heavy syrup, and you would digest them just fine. But eat them after 9 p.m., and they would lay heavy in your digestive tract, feeling as if you had swallowed a very large rock. Grandma actually led us to believe it could kill you.

My grandfather, certainly not a poster child for healthy eating habits, often succumbed to the “laying heavy” syndrome. His remedy? A bicarbonate of soda cocktail fixed by my grandmother. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase “Barb, fix me a bicarb,” I could retire comfortably.

“Laying heavy” is not to be confused with “laying out,” which was the act of purchasing something for someone without being paid in advance. When grandma went to the butcher for some fresh ground beef, she would pick up a pound for my Aunt Marie who lived in the apartment above her. She would ”lay out” the money for Marie’s portion, though I tend to think that debt went unpaid more often than not.

Now the term “laid out” had an entirely different meaning. It referred to a dead body. If someone from the neighborhood passed away, folks would ask “Where is he being laid out?” Why anyone bothered to ask was a mystery, because Morton’s Funeral Home was the only game in town. So everyone was “laid out” at Morton’s, followed by a funeral mass at St. Aloysius Church. And no, no one could spell it correctly.

If one of our family members passed away, a procession of cars made the two-hour trip out to eastern Long Island to Calverton National Cemetery. This was the final resting place of our veterans–which included my father and all my uncles. The two-hour return trip ended at my grandfather’s bar for the funeral meal, libations and endless funny stories about the deceased.

If Grandma didn’t care one way or the other about something, she would say “it makes no neverminds by me.” If she lost her temper, which was very rare, she would yell, “Jeez whiskers!” I never heard my grandmother utter a cuss word in her life, but I bet she wanted to on occasion.

Grandma and the aunts often started a sentence with “not for nuthin” which meant “here’s something you should know”. If you heard the phrase “not for nuthin”, you leaned in as if E.F. Hutton were about to speak. Typically it was going to be followed with a piece of juicy gossip about someone in the neighborhood. If you heard the word “chippie”, it referred to a woman of questionable morals, particularly one who dated married men. Likewise, a disreputable man was a “crumb-bum”. If a “chippie” and a “crumb-bum” ended up together, there would be a lot of cackling about how they apparently deserved each other.

If grandma or any of the great-aunts were discussing something not meant for the ears of the grandkids, they would switch to German. The only German word I knew was “schtrubble” which I think was actually made up. It referred to a messy hair day. And any product used to keep hair in place was called “goo.” When it came to haircuts, the ladies went to the beauty parlor and men to the barber shop–and never the twain did meet.

Apartments were called “rooms” and the living room was referred to as the parlor. If you were dating, grandma called it “keeping company.” Any store that carried newspapers was referred to as the paper store–even if it was really a hardware store. If you could pick up the Daily News or the New York Post, it was the paper store.

All cold cuts were “baloney.” If you asked for a baloney sandwich, you were asked: “What kind?” Did you want salami, ham, roast beef–which baloney did you want? When we told Grandma we wanted some “baloney.” she’d always ask: “On a sammich or in-a-hand?”

Anything located in Manhattan was “over to New York”; on Long Island it was considered “in the country”; and anything north of The Bronx was “upstate.” Nickels and dimes were called “silver” while bills were “paper.”

I wonder what my grandkids will remember about my communication habits. My guess is years from now, Quinn and Wyatt will laugh together, saying, “Remember how grandma put LOL at the end of every text?”

Cindy Phillips is a columnist for The Mountain Times.

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