Like We Say Back Home

My great-great grandfather, Sylvester Kinchen, driving Granny and her little sister somewhere in his wagon, with a very hungry horse.

A tree full of owls, a calf at a new gate, a mouse peeing on cotton — my mom and I disagree on many things, but one thing that brings us joy together is remembering my Texan granny’s expressions. Grannyisms, my mom calls them. Granny was born into poverty in Dallas in 1905. She was no stranger to subsistence farming, and her expressions reflect that. Here are some favorites.

  • She looked at me like a calf at a new gate. A calf is unable to recognize a new gate in its pen until it’s led in and out a few times.
  • Don’t just sit there looking like a tree full of owls. Don’t look so surprised or stricken. Said to a group.
  • He was quiet as a little mouse peeing on cotton. Used when someone reacts with stunned silence to some sort of diatribe or revelation.
  • You can’t get all your coons up one tree. Can’t get everything you want.
  • Told them how the cows ate the cabbage. A serious dressing-down.
  • Pitiful as a sick kitten on a hot rock. Self-explanatory.
  • She got her tail up over her back. In preparation to sting, like a scorpion. (Granny called scorpions “stinging lizards,” my mom says.)
  • Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. In blissful unawareness of some terrible or embarrassing thing.
  • Put that in your pipe and smoke it. A phrase Granny used when schooling my father on my mom, i.e., the intractability of Texan women in general.
  • He’s all hat and no cattle. A show-off or big talker, with nothing to back up the bragging.
  • She’s really shittin’ and flyin’ now. To the best of my understanding, shitting while flying (as a pigeon would) is glamorous to anyone who would wear a mink coat and drive a Corvette to go grocery shopping. In this context it’s a condemnation, but it can also be lighthearted. If you get a new mug to drink your coffee on the patio, you too can be shitting while flying.
  • Shit in one hand, want in the other. Sometimes desires are the equivalent of excrement — i.e., you can’t always get what you want.
  • We had a real toad strangler. A bad rainstorm.
  • Ain’t neither one of them got a lick a sense. Usually used in reference to my parents.
  • I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Self-explanatory.
  • Don’t that just take the rag off the bush. Exasperating occurrence. We never understood this one, but it could involve thievery of laundered menstrual rags.
  • More skittish than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers. “Rockers” here are rocking chairs.

These are culled from a series of posts I did on my blog starting in 2009 (warning: extreme early aughts design): Talking Texan; Like we say back home; Like we say back home, volume 2. The second of those includes some great contributions from readers.

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Maud Newton

Maud Newton

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Writer. Ancestor Trouble (Random House). Work in NYT Mag, Harper's, Esquire, the Guardian... Newsletter sign-up in Linktree. Opinions mine. she/her