Not Just Another Pretty Phrase

The conversation among my anglophone friends turned to turns of phrase and I found myself using one of my favorites, “Avoid cliches like the plague.” After explaining why (I thought) this was funny, I recalled an essay I wrote years ago. Since my computer is now a dusty repository for everything I’ve ever written, I was able to haul it out and dust it off. Expand it, even, because I do believe in feeding a dead horse…


Not Just Another Pretty Phrase

My grandfather grew up in one of those quaint European countries that don’t exactly exist any more, and while he never quite mastered the English language, he was always an ardent fan. Or, as he would have put it, an eager beagle.

In my grandfather’s world, if you got in trouble you were up a creek without a puddle. If you admired someone, you’d want to follow suit in their footsteps. If you were odd, you stuck out like a green thumb. When he wanted to examine something closely he’d go over it with a fine toothbrush. If you were a good person, he’d call you a diamond in the rut. To fool someone was to pull the wood over their eyes. An achievement was a feather in your nest.

Of all his grandchildren I think I was his favorite. He used to call me a chip off the old shoulder. We were close, he’d say, like two peas in a pot, through fast and famine, come hell or hot water. Still, he was always warning me not to wreck the boat, bite off more than I could choose, or get too big for my bridges. Which he urged me to burn when I came to them.

He greatly admired President Kennedy, whom he described as “head and shoulders above water,” and “not just a flash in the can.”  He was proud to say that he supported the man long before everyone else jumped on the bandstand. Nixon, though, was a horse of a different collar, and Ford he judged dense as a London frog. And that was just the tip of the icebox! Carter and Clinton were a pair of country pumpkins, Reagan was a bull in Chinatown, and Bush father and son, “the bland leading the bland.”

He likewise put popular culture under the microphone. He liked movies that kept him on the edge of his teeth, but hated ones that fell apart at the scenes. Old-fashioned music, he said, had missed the beat, but when he fell for a song, he swallowed it all: hook, line and singer. Of modern art he simply said, “There’s a sucker bored every minute.”

He had a knack, that man. He could kill two birds with one bush, cut to the cheese, blend an ear, make a mountain out of a manhole, vanish into thin ice, let the cat out of the hat, and whip up a tempest in a teaspoon. He’s the only man I know who could have his cake and take it too.

No babe in the weeds, he made his own hay in this world, or, as he liked to put it, “pulled his own leg.” He kept his ear to the grindstone and his feet on the ball. Never having ridden the gravy boat, he knew better than to cut off his nose to split his face. He was a man of action, ready to nip any problem in the butt. He never changed horses in midtown, or waited for the other shoe to shine.

Beggars, he noted, can’t be cheaters. They shouldn’t act so high and dry. Just the same, he was always ready to roll out the magic carpet for company, even his no-good brother, who was constantly reinvesting in the wheel and looking for a noodle in a haystack. He called his brother a flaw in the ointment and warned that, “A fool and his money are soon partners.” His brother had feats of clay, he lamented, and was always barging up the wrong tree.

When he met his wife (“the old ball ‘n’ socket”), it was love at first base. They were young when they married, “still wed behind the ears,” poor as church keys and living from hand to hand. Later, when she became a milestone around his neck, he found that she left a lot to be despised, and feared that she would eat him out of house and garden. “Oil and vinegar,” he often cautioned me, “don’t mix.” Still, he gave it the old cottage try, even though she made him madder than a wet blanket, for he knew her like the back of his head and, at the end of the rope, familiarity breeds content.

A natural philosopher, he knew you can’t put toothpaste back in the tub, and that Rome wasn’t burned in a day. “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it,” he’s say, likewise encouraging me not to punt myself into a corner, put the horse before the cart, and especially not to stick out like a sore throat, because, “The squeaky wheel gets the grief.” Once in a blue mood, he’d accuse me of looking at the world through rose-covered glasses, but later claimed he was just yanking my chin.

As he grew older, he came to terms with the modern world, and learned to play his credit cards close to his vest. He could never teach an old DOS new tricks, but had better luck tilting at Windows. In his Twilight Zone years he noted that he was no springing chicken and furthermore not longing for this world. He wasn’t trying to make a slick purse out of a sow’s ear or glide the lily; he could just read the writing on the wallpaper, that’s all. He was old as the halls, ready to throw in the trowel.

And now he’s passed on. Having kissed the bucket and bidden the dust, he’s pulling up daisies, out of his miniseries at last. Things are quiet now that he’s gone, so quiet you can hear a pin cushion. And when I find myself missing him most, I remind myself that there’s no use crying over skim milk or, for that matter, beating a deaf horse. It’s just the dark before the storm. Every silver lining has a cloud and every DOS has its day. I tell myself these things and I start to feel better.

Guess I’m just a chip off the old shoulder after all.

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