The Middle Distance 9.5.14: My People’s Words

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5min 49sec
Credit Sean Cayton

The most memorable exchange in the movie Sling Blade is between Karl, a mentally challenged man just released from the state mental hospital, and Frank, a young boy who’s his new friend.

Frank says: “I like the way you talk.”

“I like the way you talk,” says Karl.

Actor Billy Bob Thornton imbues Karl with a resonant bass voice. But it’s not just the voice that Frank likes. It’s also Karl’s use of idiom and the vernacular of south central Arkansas, language that bespeaks a place and time likely homogenized over the 20 years since the film was made. After all, much of the vernacular of small town and rural America, regardless of the region, is disappearing in the digital age. Now, everybody talks like people on television. Witness the ubiquitous “Really?” We all know what it means, not what it says but a sarcastic expression of disbelief.

I used to love visiting my old aunts and uncles, cousins and former neighbors in southern Kentucky and middle Tennessee, mainly to hear them talk. The way they talked was the language of my upbringing — colorful, salty and endangered.

That older generation, my mother’s contemporaries, are largely gone now. An aunt still survives at 93 in a nursing home where I’m sure she delivers zingers to staff and visitors. She was never one to mince words.

The last time I saw her I had taken my mother to Clarksville for a visit. My aunt still lived in her house then, and proudly laid out the quilts she’d been working on. “I don’t much like these colors.” She pointed to a patchwork a cousin had commissioned. “But Judy paid for ‘em so I couldn’t say nothin’.”

If my aunt didn’t think much of someone, you knew it. Her final judgment of a convicted murderer might as easily apply to a deadbeat dad: “He warn’t no count.”

A licensed practical nurse for many years, she relished giving us the lowdown on acquaintances’ and family members’ health status. “She was eat up with cancer,” she said about a second cousin who’d died just before our visit. “Doctor Toth just cooked her inside.”

At a family reunion on that same visit, a room full of cousins I could have picked out of a police lineup as blood relations, though I’d never met most of them, sat and ate and told tales in a cement block church fellowship hall on a Saturday afternoon. “Some people said I didn’t need a nametag, I look so much like Mammy,” said a woman, introducing herself as Uncle Bailey’s niece. She explained that she was a second cousin once removed. “I like that last part,” cracked a silver-haired man gnawing on a chicken leg.

“I didn’t have directions,” he said, “so I just stopped and asked two old bootleggers how to get here.”

Most of the jokes were about the advancing ages of the gathered crowd. “I had three people on walkers at my Christmas Eve dinner,” said a silver-haired woman dishing out featherweight slices of coconut pie.

The mood darkened over stories of dementia in cousins who hadn’t been seen in a while. “Bobby Joe’s out in Lebanon now. Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nobody, they say.”

A woman everyone called Miss Ora patted her blue hair and offered my mother the ultimate compliment: “Bettye, your hair come out real pretty.”

“Is a school bus yellow?” quipped a man nearby, referring to the well-known fact that among that generation of Morrisons, Bettye had by far the best hair.

All of these folks loved telling stories about the generation before theirs, aunts and uncles long gone but whose legacy remained. There was the story of an aunt so frugal that when her heavy shoes turned over she flipped them and wore them on the wrong feet until they were “plumb wore out.”

There was the uncle who trained his animals so well his wife would send a dog out to the fields to carry him his lunch.

There was the other uncle whose wife put his clothes out on the back porch and made him eat his dinner there after he had an affair with a sharecropper. “He warn’t no count,” my aunt would have said.

My people’s words are growing dim and hushed out here in the middle distance where we’ve all moved to town and far away. I hear them in memory and occasionally in my mother’s voice. She can barely hear me any more, but I collect and store her words like a squirrel storing nuts for the long winter. I like the way she talks.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.