Mark J. Keenan
Bread and Duck
Updated: Aug 20, 2020
‘What’s for dinner, Mum?’
‘Bread and duck under the table.’
When I was growing up this was a daily conversation with my mum. Eventually, though not always, she might tell me what dinner actually was, but only after repeating her favourite response multiple times, smiling and laughing to herself despite my increasing annoyance at not knowing what food was to be set on the table for the evening meal.
I use the answer myself sometimes when my kids ask the same question of Karen or me. And I must admit I do find it amusing though, like younger me, my children also don’t seem to appreciate the delicious humour, the dual meaning of the word duck, and the hilariousness of eating plain bread while seated on the floor below the dining room table.
If you told Mum you were going to put the kettle on, her response would always be ‘I don’t think it will fit.’
‘I’m hungry.’ Response, ‘I’m Mum, pleased to meet you Hungry.’
If you made a fuss about something you’d done which she didn’t think you needed to be going on about. ‘What do you want, a medal? Or a chest to pin it on?’
Having a sneezing fit? ‘One’s a wish, two’s a kiss, three’s a letter, four’s something better.’
When she farted, or as Mum called it, “fluffed”. ‘Better out than in.’
‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Apparently.
Mum ALWAYS had answers, though sometimes those answers were usually cryptic or less useful than you may have hoped.
Of course, Mum wasn’t the only parent with a repertoire of strange phrases and one-liners. Dad had plenty of his own.
I often wonder how the owners of a Chinese restaurant might react to Dad’s description of their cooking as ‘chew and spew.’
And what on earth did my friends think when he answered the phone with ‘City morgue. You kill em in, we chill em.’
Recently, I was out to dinner with some friends. As usual I was waving my hands around during one of my stories and knocked the salt shaker over. Without hesitation, I picked up a pinch of the spillage and threw it over my left shoulder. Everyone looked at me quizzically, so I asked the obvious question "did I throw it over the wrong shoulder?'
No one knew what I was talking about. Not a single person had heard about the condiment tipping superstition where bad luck will befall you unless you immediately chuck some of it over your shoulder. And no, I was not out with a group of twenty year olds. I thought everyone knew about the salt thing. Apparently not. Another Mum special.
Mum would never walk under a ladder, or open an umbrella in the house. I won't either and my family has heard me rant about the latter more than once. I don't know how Mum would handle the black cat we now have in our family - he constantly crosses my path, including just now as he walked across the keyboard.
Where did my parents learn these things? Why have they stuck with me?
I have been researching my ancestors. I've also been investigating people who might have known my ancestors - employers, neighbours, teachers, carers, friends - and the places they've lived, worked and played. I'm immersing myself as much as I can as I research and write my way into their lives.
Often when I'm writing dialogue from another period I'll get caught up in wondering how people used to speak, the phrases they'd use, the accent in their voice; even simple things like what they called their parents. What sort of sayings do they have? Was ‘heebie jeebies’ a thing in the 1920s? (yes, as it turns out). There's not always a lot to go on. You can read books of the time, watch movies set in the period, maybe find some music to listen to. And of course you can search the internet. Of course, I’m also mining my own memory, and those of other friends and family. And I’m always listening for those little things in conversations which sound less 2020 and more 1820.
Of course, it's remarkable how much getting these "right" can transport the reader, and the writer; almost like time travel. But why I really like it is because it never fails to bring a smile to my face to think that, sometime in the future, one of my great-great-great-great grandkids will be rolling their eyes as their mum tells them, yet again, they are having bread and duck under the table for dinner.