Some families live by rules and Bible quotations. Mine speaks private joke — little sayings or pop culture quotes that no one outside of our tight-knit pack would understand. Many originated long before my birth: “Save some for Virginia” (from the movie “The Snake Pit”), or “It’s hot in the boots” (from Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”).
Some speak to the folklore of my childhood (“Five more minutes until the ice cream’s ready!”). Some are running jokes (my father claiming that his favorite singer is Ethel Merman — he can’t stand her, actually. Claiming to love something you hate is classic Harris family fun). My brother and I can quote verbatim the last ten minutes of the “Goodbye, Johnny Bravo” episode of the “The Brady Bunch” with my mother adding the scene-ending punch line, “You know, the suit never really did fit right through the shoulders.”
This family-speak is not meant to exclude. It is our bonding mechanism, the verbal equivalent of a hug. My husband and sister-in-law speak it as if it were their native tongue. They’re up for a good Bubba Rangel joke, even if they’ve never seen Bubba Rangel (a grade school classmate of my brother) in their lives. Our words draw us together and bring us joy.
One of the characters in the novel The Company of Women, by Mary Gordon, hopes that heaven will be like a private joke, a sudden giddy inclusiveness, an instant feeling of belonging. That’s what our language is for us. It’s a quick rush of home and family and being part of something larger than yourself.
I, too, hope heaven is like a private joke. If, upon seeing Him at last, God says to me, “Sit, Rachel,” I’ll know I’m home.
- Lori Strawn