When my parents hosted friends and family for Sunday dinners, much of the conversation was in the Sicilian dialect of their youth. Over anisette and almonds, my father transformed from postal clerk to carefree vagabond; my mother, a cafeteria worker, was once again the Belle of Pittston who snared the biggest catch in the neighborhood. A word or a phrase I couldn’t understand would trigger a round of laughter, a meaningful glance across the table, or a resigned shrug.
When my father died my mother became the last of her generation. She entered a retirement home where she told me she liked her new friends, but there was no one who spoke her dialect. “I can’t remember some of my words,” she said, “I’m losing my Italian.”
She didn’t just lose words; she lost a private land we kids only glimpsed, one with a passport stamped with words and phrases, personal victories, hard-won lessons, and folk wisdom acquired in fifty years of marriage.
During my first real date with Michael, I asked him to translate a sign on the wall of Lutece — then the best restaurant in New York, if not the world. “Liquor turns men into beasts, women into martyrs and children into victims,” he quoted. “Hmm, I said, “I’ll drink to that.”
He laughed, and laughed again when he mentioned it, during date after date, until that phrase became our shorthand for “You can say that again,” the first stamp in my passport from our own private land.
We were an unlikely couple. I grew up on the Lower East Side, in a neighborhood he visited from his Ivy League college to score pot. He was an agnostic, I was a Catholic. He was an avid and skillful driver, I didn’t even have a license. What I did have, though, was a sense of humor that he really enjoyed — enough so that, despite all our differences, the next idiom of our private language originated at our wedding.
The party was winding down. We had been toasted and everyone had been fed. My uncle Joe, with a refill of Asti, looked thoughtfully at Angie, his wife of fifty years, and told us, “you have to be willing to lose an argument.” From then on, when an argument went around and around with no end in sight, one of us — usually Michael — would say “I’ll do an Uncle Joe” and that would end it. It was a big sacrifice for a man so competitive he’d argue every point in a trivia game.
Many of Michael’s catchphrases came from rock and roll lyrics, punchlines of jokes, or dialog from underground comics. At the start of every walk on a nice day, he’d quote his favorite Zap Comix character, the Checker Demon, and say, “Nice day for something.” When trouble was brewing, he’d say “Release the hounds” like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” I often teased him that he had a fourteen-year-old’s sense of humor.
My catchphrases, though, came out of the ether — things I said without thinking that made him laugh, just like the very first one, “I’ll drink to that.”
Other phrases linked to a certain time, place or event. They made sense to no one but us, for comfort, or amusement, or sometimes, as any private language would, simply for the pleasure of recognition as the phrase slides into a well-worn groove, joining dozens — or hundreds — of other tellings and hearings, times and places. They were a way to call up a wonderful memory in an instant, a pledge of allegiance to our private world. It’s the impulse, grown up now, that all children have, asking for the same bedtime story again and again. We’re loved. We’re in a safe and familiar place. Remember how this story goes? There are no monsters here.
Every so often I’d say some random thing, and he’d laugh and say, “That’s one of Virge’s Greatest Hits.” I felt so happy whenever he said that, especially when he’d add, “That’s why I keep you around.”
After he was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease, I added a new one: “It’s just a bump in the road.” There was a speed bump on the road to 95 South that we’d hit when I drove us to the hospital for yet another meeting with the transplant team. He’d moved to Florida to improve his chances of getting a transplant; I was commuting back and forth because work was, for me, still in New York City. I was a very nervous driver, but for his sake I’d drive for hours, often in the rain, trying not to hyperventilate. That was my gift to him. He learned patience, finally, in the car while I drove. That was his gift to me. He’d speak in exaggeratedly soothing tones to tease me when we hit that speed bump on Summer Avenue with the sign that said “Traffic Calming.” “Caaalming” he’d intone while I maneuvered carefully over the bump, even when we were just going to the supermarket, an ordinary trip. It soothed both of us.
I said “it’s just a bump in the road” more and more to encourage him as he battled each setback. His fighting spirit was forged as a Long Island wrestling champion; he pinned his illness to the mat again and again, but each time he got up, he left a little more behind. We were buying time until he got the call for the transplant that meant health, that meant survival. I kept our “go bags” packed.
But even at the worst of times, the scariest of times, I could say something and Michael would laugh, and look at me with the same expression he had the day we got married, biting his lower lip in delight. He gave me that look once when we’d spent all day in the hospital waiting for an appointment. It was a big one, a last-minute one, a life-or-death one, and we were nervous.
When I went to get us something to eat — I became a connoisseur of hospital cafeterias — I saw a worker so slow she seemed to be fetching French fries one-by-one to fill the cardboard container. I acted it out for Michael, shuffling along, taking tiny steps in a trance state and mumbling “’…and that’s ONE frenchfry….and that’s TWO…’ She was SO slow.”
“How slow was she, Rodney?” he said, a reference to our mutual love for Rodney Dangerfield.
“She was so slow,” I said, “By the time the carton was filled the kitchen mice had become management trainees.”
“So what was her problem?’ Michael followed up.
“Well, I said, “she was an older lady…”
“And how old was she?” he asked.
“She was so old, her high school picture is painted in a cave in France.” I loved how much he laughed then, loved even more when he asked me to tell him again, while he was waiting to find out what was going to happen to him.
“Dance for Grandma” I said, our way of calling out command performances.
“That’s why I keep you around,” he replied.
When you lose someone, you lose a language, too — the dialect of memories. Now I’m the only one who knows that “do you need a little ‘there there?’” has nothing to do with Gertrude Stein or Oakland. It originated in Michael’s lightbulb moment, when he realized that when I complained about work, I wasn’t asking him to fix it, just to listen and sympathize. “Ah!” he said, his gunmetal blue eyes widening, “you want a little ‘there, there!!’” and he patted me on the shoulder. After that “Do you need a little ‘there, there?'” meant “Do you need to vent while I listen for a while?” Sometimes he was too proud to say he needed a little “there, there,” but I’d intuit it while he struggled with his illness. After a while, he didn’t need to say it at all.
The first year after he died, the memories literally paralyzed me. I got ambushed daily by situations that would elicit a familiar phrase either one of us would say. A chance phrase or song lyric locked me into a memory. I could only function by writing the flashback or the phrase on a note and putting it in The Mike Box, along with the cards and the photos, the comb with his hair, his cufflinks, the tie that is the exact color of his eyes. Only then could I resume whatever I was doing.
I needed a little there, there.
I’m still holding on to our language and memories with a record of our catchphrases. I add to them even now, six years later. I’m writing the dictionary of our relationship, but a language is a dialogue, requiring a speaker and a listener. You can’t talk to a dictionary. When I feel a nice breeze on a balmy day, I can still hear him quoting The Checkered Demon, saying “Nice day for something” — but only in my head.
The toughest memories come with the things I said that made him laugh — that was my particular accomplishment. “Michael always liked funny women,” his friend Jim once told me. But it wasn’t until after he died that I discovered exactly how much it meant to him, too.
The week before he died, I had told him about a dinner in Greenpoint; I had the ‘Polish Platter.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s pierogis and kielbasa,” I told him, “but after you get it a German guy sitting next to you takes it away.” He laughed for a good minute, at least, and then we moved on to more serious topics, like his upcoming biopsy.
Shortly afterwards, while planning his memorial service, I found a scribbled reminder on his desk: “The Polish Platter.” When I turned on his computer, I saw why he wrote it down; he had an actual file called “Virge’s Greatest Hits.”
Long before the Mike Box, he had tallied the things I said that he liked to hear or repeat, again and again, “I’ll drink to that” and “Mauna Higha,” the idioms of a relationship, the trip to Hawaii or the dinner at Lutece. The “Polish Platter” was his last entry.
I’ve been losing sleep over a turn of phrase he called “nups” because, he said, they were the opposite of puns. They came to me without thinking about them, and Michael was the only one who caught them and treasured them. He’d even email them to friends. I don’t remember any of them. I’ve ransacked our papers and his notes, and checked the emails and I can’t find any references. They’re gone. Like my mother, I can’t remember some of my words. I fear I’m losing my Italian, too, losing a language for a community smaller than a Sicilian village, a nation of two. Now one. But no matter what, I will keep looking, remembering, and adding to the list, appreciating each turn of phrase anew, savoring each moment and memory.
I can hardly do otherwise. I’m the last speaker of “us” now.