Over the years, a lot of people have asked me how I came up with the strange and wonderful things I’ve said. Colorful, connective images, jokes, and metaphors that usually bring an equal fraction of laughter and furrowed brows. I usually say it’s too many Bogart movies or Raymond Chander novels or folk songs, but the truthful answer is that they come from my dad.
The references might well be from an old movie or an old song or a well-written sitcom (and no, that’s not an oxymoron, it’s an anachronism), but the way of making the connections comes from my father.
When I was a kid in the sixties, growing up in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my pharmacist father would come home from work carrying a package or a bag and someone would ask him what it was. He would usually answer “a multichannel tocodynomometer.” I suppose everyone has colorful memories of their upbringing; for me Proust’s madeleines and Jimmy Buffet’s “Pencil Thin Mustache” are the multichannel tocodynomometer.
These days, my four siblings and I have scattered to the wind. Mom still lives in the hometown and Dad is here with me in California.
When I remember one of these quirky things, I ask him about it. He smiles and usually says it was just something that struck his fancy. He just liked the sound of the words. He wasn’t trying to teach us anything. He didn’t want us to rush to the Compton’s Encyclopedia and look up multichannel tocodynomometer. He was just trying to make it through the day knowing he had five children to feed on a pharmacist’s income.
He also loved nicknames. He couldn’t remember anyone’s name – even his kids’. His memory was visual. He knew he knew you, but he couldn’t connect you with the name your parents gave you (even if that was him!). So he gave you a name that fit you. Something he could remember.
One of the local contractors became Pea Gravel, a guy Dad rented an apartment to became Gerbils, my Dad’s feckless brother became Rheingold, the name of the first opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, but really just a name he thought suited his brother. His kids became Thumper, Professor (incredibly prescient!), Beauty, Buffy, and Baby Driver. The kids’ nicknames were in-house, but the townies’ nicknames had incredible traction. Everyone called Pea Gravel Pea Gravel and Gerbils Gerbils, including their wives.
Dad had a lot of stuff to deal with. He never knew his father, who was killed in a car crash when Dad was two years old. He was taking care of his mother, my wonderful, hard-drinking, chain-smoking grandmother, by the time he was a teenager. Only sixteen when she married, Dad’s mother was the youngest child of a once well-to-do family that lost most of its money in the Great Depression. I had no clue when I was nine, or even thirty-nine, but there were times when my Dad was nine that he didn’t know for sure where dinner was coming from. He managed somehow.
Perhaps some of those painful memories crowded out things like people’s names and the desire to give a straight answer to an overly inquisitive child. So we got Gerbils and Thumper and multichannel tocodynomometer. But he was a wonderful father. Sometimes he seemed to know everything. He loved doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, and even later in life, after I had my PhD and had worked for years as a college professor, there were clues he would get that were beyond obscure.
For the times when the answer wasn’t apparent, what he actually knew was how to find out almost everything. There were lots of books in the house, and we all wore out our library cards. My two favorite bedtime stories for Dad to read to me were the passages in the encyclopedia about Hercules and Pompeii. I can still see the photos: a statue of Hercules and one of the ash-frozen remains from the eruption of Vesuvius.
And then there were the poems. He would read me the first couple of stanzas of “St. Agnes Eve.” He would tell me to picture what Keats was writing. “The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.” Sometimes he would randomly blurt out phrases like “Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn!” Wordsworth would have been proud. It wasn’t all heavy. We also heard a fair amount of A.A. Milne and Robert Service. I still remember what happened “on the marge of Lake Le Barge.”
So I’ll save you looking: a multichannel tocodynomometer is something used to measure the strength of a woman’s contractions during childbirth. Dad probably heard it when he picked up Mom after a nursing shift at the hospital and he liked the feel of the words. It, no doubt, did instill a sense of curiosity in us, but that’s not why he said it.
He was just fighting his demons in his own way. And he raised five kids who themselves are raising ten. All of his kids went to college, and they all push their kids to do well. Mine went to the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon. They never heard their father say multichannel tocodynomometer, but I think somehow it made their lives better that I did.