Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Maledictory Matriarch

The Great Plains! The words alone create a sense of space and a feeling of destiny--a challenge. But what exactly is this special part of Western America that contains so much of our history? How did it come to be? Why is it different?

United States Government Printing Office, Washington : 1980

The answer of all three questions is as obvious as the nose on my face. The Great Plains, that special part of Western America, creates a sense of space and feeling of destiny because it is the only place on this blue planet where there is an actual, working matriarchal society - of humans. Of course, there are many matriarchal animal societies. These social societies include ants, bees, elephants, and killer whales, but only one for humans.

The first Matriarch I remember was my great-grandmother, Sophie G. When I turned ten years old I could look her in the eye, which was an immeasurably disturbing experience because she would look right through a person ... just to read the newspaper behind them. She was born in Norway, came to the Short Grass Prairie in a covered wagon, loved to play Canasta, and kept the Devil off the doorstep with a "Hot Toddy" every now and then ... or so. That was a mix of skills that impressed the fire out of a ten year old too. When the north wind blew and the cards turned against her, she'd curse in Norwegian and make it sound almost like singing. She ran the family until the day she died. She ran "the business" too, and she ran it well. She lived in the very first three story house built in Stevens County, Kansas, and to this day it's the only such structure in her tiny town.

The next matriarch in my life was my father's mother, my Irish grandmother, Momo. She was the kind of grandmother that every kid wishes for ... and a little more. She let school in the seventh grade. She eventually met my grandfather, Popo, in an oil boomtown in southeastern Oklahoma in the 1930's. He was a hard worker and very strong. He had a team of mules and made a living hauling drill pipe out to the rigs working the oil patch. She had a gift for organization and accounting. Together they turned that mule team into a truck and trailer, and then into a fleet of trucks with caterpillars and motor graders, and then into a major oil field service business.

Although he always had time for his grandchildren, his love was "the business". My grandfather was a man of his times. He drank, smoked and told a story from time to time. He was built of the same genetic stuff that most every male in my family is, and died early because of it. Momo lived to be 92 and had her wits about her to the very end. She taught me everything (well, almost everything) I know about "the business", and I am forever grateful for that.

She was an eccentric character who never did anything half-way. She was a red-faced hatchet lady marching with the Prohibitionists in the 1920s. She served the Church and helped the Relief efforts during the worst times of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. She and my grandfather worked together during the 1940s during World War 2 to build the Municipal Airport at Pueblo, Colorado. She was an ardent anti-communist in the 1950s. She was a community activist and politically involved during the 1960s. In the 1970s, she founded a health food store and bought the first waterbed in Stevens County from a slick, hippie, full-color catalog. It set tongues to wagging, and some even speculated that what happened in it was the root cause of my grandfather's third heart attack. In the 1980s, she was a Reagan Revolutionary. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was elected and she became convinced that the end of the world was at hand. After George W. Bush was elected, it was absolute proof that she'd only been wrong about "when".

The last matriarch I've known is my other grandmother; we called her "Mother" because "a 19 year old can't be a grandmother". The deal was that she'd had her 19th birthday about thirty times when I heard that line for the first time. She always had something to say. When I was 7, I asked her why she and my grandfather slept together while Momo and Popo slept in separate beds. She told that they did that because they were Republicans. I suppose this is why Democrat's have more fun. She was loud, proud of being a "yellow dog" Democrat, and never owned a house with very thick walls - a fact which made living with my grandfather and her occasionally ... ahem ... uncomfortable.

She was a unique woman. She could curse up a blue streak, out drink most men, and then give an old fashioned beat down to the others. She insisted upon the strictest sort of table manners - enforced by a long handled wooden spoon. She loved riding horses as much as she hated Dick Nixon. I suppose that made her the quintessential Short Grass Prairie Woman.

I heard a professor of psychology at Harvard named Steven Pinker talk about "the stuff of thought" on CSPAN (9/17/07). I'm certain that Pinker got everything he knows from an interview with my grandmother ... because the subject of the talk was about cursing. She is such an accomplished swearer that "The Maledictory Matriarch" should be carved on her headstone. For your enjoyment, I offer into evidence the different categories of swearing outlined by Pinker.

1. Dysphemistic swearing - the substitution of a disagreeable, offensive, or disparaging expression for an agreeable or inoffensive one. The difference between shit and feces or fuck and copulate. Same ideas really but different acceptibilities.

There are 34 euphemisms for feces in contemporary English usage. All of which with my grandmother was intimately familiar. I think she used a few of the noun forms of that to fill out labels for Christmas gifts one year.

2. Abusive swearing - used to intimidate or humiliate someone.

She was especially fond of this type of swearing. It was through this that I not only learned that our Lord Jesus Christ rode a bicycle, but why. She used this one very cleverly to describe the Protestant relatives engaged in undignified sexual activities, usually with small animals.

3. Idiomatic swearing - terms where it is completely unclear where the referent of the word came from in the current context.

These dripped of her like sweat on a July afternoon. Shit out of luck, get your shit together, pissed off, all kinds of terms used strictly for emotional impact.

4. Emphatic swearing - Used to add emphasis to a particular point.

One of her favorites was Fuck-O-Roni. I think that some people call that the San Francisco Treat, but I couldn't swear to it in court. Another one was "shit a brick". Pinker says that this category of swearing is used "to advertise their reactions to life's frustrations and setbacks", but I think it's much broader than that.

5. Cathartic swearing - strange phenomena where the topic of the conversation abruptly turns to sexuality or excreta. A response cry that is communicative and informs bystanders of her current state of emotions.

This is why everyone knew when SHE was in the confession box, but then again, it's about the only time you'll hear a priest talking this way.

Wikipedia says that "no matriarchal societies are known". I can't imagine anything further from the truth.


CIELO said...

Every creature in nature amazes me! I’m in awe!

Blessings to you and yours!


bindhiya said...

Hi Skeeter,
First of all thank you so much for your comment...
I enjoyed your made me laugh and think about my grandma's.. I have two grandma's One was so sweet, my best friend..other one was not so friendly but loving...
Here were am living i met a grandma,a sweet soul...I miss all of my grandma's now all of them are watching me from above..
Take care
Have a beautiful day
♥ & hugs

NAME: CIELO said...

Dear friends, thank you for all the amazing answers you left on my previous post, "A hidden world". I read them and read them again with pure joy! How creative can you be! As I let my imagination run wild, I could hear the old Kookaburra--its laugh filling the air of the vast Outback of Australia, I saw the small alabaster colored shell resting in the white sand as the waves came crashing, and heard the sound of thunder roaring as the waves slapped against the rocks, I saw a dog, enchanted by the colorful mallards and honking birds, a ladybug hidding in the garden; yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers; the little wren nesting in a grandmother’s clothesline post… Oh what delight! I became one with God listening to nature through your words...

Blessings to you and yours

Marisa said...

Major bonus points awarded! You reminded me of my great granny who used to show us "a little something she learned in the navy" every now and again, which involved the use of tools left behind by my pappy. Then, she would chip her freshly manicured nails and always end with "aw shit." Grandmothers of the plains rule.