The Tale of the Umbershoot
"Are you going out today? If you are, then don't forget to take your umbershoot."
If my mother said this to you, you would probably look at her with a great degree of puzzlement. If my mother said this to me, I would know that we were supposed to get rain that day.My mother can be dour and serious. She was the eldest of four children, and her unasked-for position of seniority required her to be the caretaker of her siblings while her parents ran a small store.
As a result of that caretaking, I can vouch for her excellence at it.
She graduated from high school in 1961, when in Arkansas, the propriety of the 1950s hadn't quite been overtaken by the gaiety and looseness of the 1960s. She was unmarried, and through casual comments she made, I gather that her family despaired that she would ever marry.
She went to college. A serious coed, she studied hard, got good grades, and met a blond fellow who was working two jobs and trying to go to school at the same time. Something clicked. They understood each other, and understanding led to dating, and dating to marriage.
She graduated and got her teacher's certification. He dropped out for lack of money, and got a job at the local aluminum refinery plant. They moved back home, into a ramshackle little house available from her family, and started saving up money to build a house.
In the latter part of the 1960s, they had their first child: a daughter, my sister. Is this where it began? I do not know, and I've never asked my sister.
The autumn of a year in the mid-seventies was a very different time. The house—once the dream of two newlyweds—was built and mostly furnished. The first daughter was nearly nine years old, red-haired, strong-willed—and wanted a baby brother.
My sister, upon seeing me for the first time, declared that this invading infant had baggy knees—not to mention the egregious offense of being female—and inquired in all seriousness, "Can we take her back to the Sears counter to get another one?"
Instead, the infant moved into the bedroom across from the parents, and life began—or continued, depending on how you looked at it.
Somewhere along the way, my mother began to tell me stories. I do not know when, because I do not remember life without them. As it was, this younger child of theirs exhibited a hunger for language they had not experienced with their older child. By age two, I was grabbing at books; by two and a half, I was reading on my own.
It sparked something in my mother, I believe; something that hadn't come to light in the first thirty-odd years of her life.
The gifts: words. Not standard, normal, English words—although she used those liberally and colorfully in attempts to keep me interested in language.
Instead, they were make-believe words, sometimes pulled from childish mispronunciations and sometimes from adult whimsy, which became so ingrained into my brain that to this day I have trouble distinguishing "dictionary" words from "our" words.
Before leaving on a trip, you could stop by the fridge and pour you a glass of sky juice (although, I suppose, it should've been called 'cloud juice' instead). If you thought it was going to rain, you made sure to take your umbershoot. If you were going far, you stopped at a gas station to fill up your car with pusholine. In multi-level department stores you rode the eskimolator to go up a floor, and you took care as you walked around unsteady displays of items so as to not make them tump over.
In the winter, when my father would attend local football games, he wore his green corduroy hat, which we all knew was the woollybooger. He liked to drive, and would sometimes drive faster than he should have, which was expeeding the seed limit. Since the car wasn't a stick shift, it was an awfully-matic, but I didn't learn the difference until I began to drive.
Imagine my consternation when, as a newlywed, I kept saying to my spouse, "Take your umbershoot! It's going to rain!"—and my husband looking at me with an abject look of confusion. After several tries he looked at me and said, "Do you mean an…umbrella?"
"But that's what an umbershoot is," I said.
(Those words listed above are the only ones I've been able to uncover so far; those are the ones that have, like 'umbershoot,' come up in casual conversation and received blank stares from confused friends or acquaintances.)
Since that moment of discovery, I have asked most of my friends if their families did similar things, or had similar words, while they were growing up. I have yet to find another family who did it to the extent that we did, and I haven't the slightest bit of doubt that it has much to do with my love and sheer fascination with the English language that I have today.
I look back, knowing that it was my mother who was instrumental in the creation and usage of these words, and I marvel. There is nothing in her background that points to this particular level of verbal whimsy, this dictionary playfulness.
These words, descriptive and playful as they are, have as much to say about my mother as they do the objects or actions they describe. They indicate a depth, a complexity—an innate creativity—that I don't think she's ever shown to people outside her family.
While I feel that I've been given a verbal and linguistic gift, I find myself asking if these words, these gifts, also serve as indicators that maybe—just maybe—there is much, much more to my mother than the chronological stories about her could ever tell. To those questions, I have neither words nor answers.