Crying Wolf

Every family develops its own mythology—stories that help explain what happens around the house, on vacation, out in the yard.

I could say the following to any member of my family and get either a laugh or exasperated sigh:

· “Don’t knock out my contact.”

· “Stuffed crust pizza isn’t any good.”

· “I’ll have the chicken filet.”

· te-TAN-us

· “Your face looks like you got attacked by a squirrel.”

· Paco

· Bubba

Maybe for you it’s an old college injury of dad’s: his knee cap came out of place and slid around to the back of his knee. That’s why he never runs, only walks. Oh, he’ll run down a Frisbee or trot after one of the grandbabies, but you’ll never see him sprint. He doesn’t have an MCL.

A family also builds its own private vocabulary.

About halfway through high school, I made up the word “stoinker.” It sounded bodily, euphemistic, vaguely offensive. My older sister Elizabeth was in college at the time and was so pleased with my neologism that she drew a sign on poster board and put it in her dorm window:

“HAVE YOU CHECKED YOUR STOINKER TODAY?”

The response was favorable.

Certain personality traits lend themselves to mythologizing, and in light of certain events, even common words can take on mythic proportions and special connotations. Most of these small, quite ordinary happenings take place on the way to the grocery or church or baseball practice.

One of my family’s favorite stories took place my eighth or ninth grade year. Elizabeth was in the car, which meant she was still in high school. We were all riding in the blue Suburban one Sunday morning on our way to church.

Across Hillsboro Road from Hillsboro Church of Christ is my favorite field in Nashville. A small stream lined with tall hardwoods forms two of its angles and Tyne Boulevard forms the other. A scattering of large trees grow in the field and throw pools of shade over the tall grass. When autumn comes, huge bales of hay appear. Any breeze blowing from that direction smells of sunlight, and clover, and faintly of cows. Too few of these fields exist now in Green Hills and Forest Hills. One by one, they have morphed into developments with enormous brick houses sprouting like so many warts or toadstools.

Not this field though. This is the field that in your dreams draws you into its golden center. Your eyes feast on its tiny, delicate flowers; your hands, on its springy grasses; your ears, on noisy grasshoppers and happy birds. Even the purple-headed thistles are welcome, like an awkward cousin.

This is also the Field of the Wolf.

That morning, just before my dad turned right into the church parking lot, my mom drew all of our attention to a dark dot in the distance. It appeared to be moving.

“Look! A wolf!”

“A wolf?” my dad asked.

“Yes!” my mom said, “A wolf.”

My dad took his foot off the accelerator. We all got a chance to take a good look.

“I don’t think that’s a wolf, Mom,” I said.

“Yes, it is!”

“It’s probably a coyote or somebody’s dog.”

“No, it’s a wolf! I can tell by the sleek look of the fur around its face.”

“Mom, it’s a hundred yards away. You can’t even see its face. We can barely even tell that it’s in the canine family, let alone talk about its fur. Besides, I read in Field & Stream that wolves haven’t lived in Tennessee for a hundred years. They’ve only recently reintroduced small numbers into the Smokies with hopes that they’ll survive, and I doubt that one made it all the way over here.”

“Well, I don’t care what ya’ll think. I know it’s a wolf.”

She folded her arms, and by this time, the car was parked. We all went into church.

My mom has lived to regret that conversation. Her side of the family is known for—how should I say this?—their tenacity. Okay, stubborness.

To give you another example, my great-grandmother, Nanny—married name “Pearl Legate,” no joke—told my maternal grandfather, “There is no room for sons like you in heaven.”

Ouch. This happened after he took her keys away because she vanished for hours one day. She’d gotten lost in her car and couldn’t remember how to get home.

I don’t guess any of us likes having our independence taken away.

In the years following the wolf incident, whenever we see an animal that is obviously a horse or cat or whitetail deer, one of us will point and shout, “Look! A wolf!”

Though she is finally able to laugh, my mom maintains to this day that the creature, possibly canine, did, in fact, though we could barely tell whether or not it was an animal, possess the texture and suppleness of fur characteristic of wolves.

Has my mother ever seen a wolf? No. Has she ever seen a nature show on television about wolves? Possibly. Is she willing to stake her credibility on superhuman vision and esoteric zoological knowledge? Absolutely.

Stubbornness. She may as well have said, “I could tell it was a cockatiel by its brilliance of its emerald plumage and the dramatic curvature of its beak.”

 You can’t get away with anything in our family.

If you’ve got any of your own myths to share, please do so in the “Comments” section below.

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2 Comments

  1. John
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Funny how families come up with these words. In our family, our oldest daughter Sarah was once trying to show her obvious command of the English language along with her prowess of biology.

    We were discussing animals and how amazing humans really were, when she promptly told us that the reasons humans were so much better at stuff was because they have “detachable thumbs”. Of course, no amount of discussion could convice her that these were actually “opposable thumbs”. She was SURE that they were detachable.

    To this day, if you say detachable thumbs, everyone laughs….and Sarah continues to insist this is the correct pronunciation!

  2. Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Hysterical!

    When I was little, I heard the song “Soul Provider” on TV and started singing along… “baby I wanna be your sofa giga!”

    That was literally like 20 years ago and it’s still a family joke.

    Along the same vein, my grandfather (who died before I was born) went to some sort of club meeting where they were singing some Irish song whose chorus was “Fine girl ye are!” Afterward he told my grandma he loved that song, you know, the one where everybody shouted “Fingle ya!” That story has haunted him even beyond the grave.