The Ballad of Susan

When you’re a military kid, every house is temporary, usually only lived in for three years or so, then you pack up and move on.

We’d arrive in a new town with almost nothing; no house, no friends, no school, and aside from what we carried with us, no possessions. 

It would eventually become a pseudo-home, but it wasn’t a hometown, with history, extended family, and friends that you’ve known since diapers.

Living this nomadic life meant that our parents’ hometowns were designated “home”.

Granny and Pap-Pap’s house is gone, but here is where it stood in Pittsburgh.

Dad’s from Pittsburgh and on visits, we’d stay with his parents, Granny and Pap-Pap.  They lived in a house built right into a steep hill, so the kitchen and basement were on the same level, up the narrow, steep stairs, were the bedrooms and Pap Pap’s workroom, where there was a door which opened up right on to the backyard.

It was as if the house had sprung from of the slightly creepy, Byzantine imagination of Roald Dahl.    

My mom’s parents died years before she met my dad.

So, our home base in Jersey was at Mom’s oldest sister, my Aunt Polly and her husband Uncle Bill’s, our surrogate grandparents.  They had a huge yard, a damp, cool, slightly mysterious cellar that was under the house, and a kitchen cupboard dedicated to cookies, candy, and chips. 

When we lived on the east coast, we would often spend Christmas at both homes; a few days in one, six hours on a turnpike, then a few days in the other.

This particular year we spent the first portion of our trip in Jersey, so we were there when Santa came and opened our presents there.

One of my presents was a baby doll, but not just any old baby doll.  She was a Vogue doll, a well-made, beautiful baby with brown hair and bangs like mine, a soft body, and the sweetest expression.  Vogue dolls were the Rolls Royce of toy dolls; in today’s dollars, it cost about $100.  It was my main gift from the jolly fat man.

A couple of days later our family was in Pittsburgh. Once there, I was happily swilling my grandmother’s homemade grape juice, eating her potato bread, and following my older cousins Cookie and Gerry around like a Christmas puppy.

The first evening after dinner, my two-year-old brother Bud and I went upstairs to change into our pajamas.  I came downstairs, and my little brother hurried after, not wanting to be upstairs by himself. 

He took the first couple of steps, then lost his footing and tumbled down the rest of those treacherous stairs.  He landed in a heap at the bottom.  My mom, a world-renown worrywart and nervous mother was a writhing ball of frantic.

Luckily, the only injury was a busted lip.  They cleaned him up and settled in for a night of keeping Bud awake to watch for signs of concussion.

Then something rather curious happened.   

My bro had been wailing away, non-stop, ever since he fell.  When I came over to him, holding my fancy new doll, he suddenly stopped.  He was fascinated by her, and the only thing that kept him from hysterics was holding her.  I was persuaded to temporarily turn her over to calm him down.

I never got her back.

He named her Susan, shaved her head, and gave her a face tattoo with a magic marker.  She was his constant companion for years. 

To be honest, I don’t think Susan would have gotten from me anywhere near the love and devotion he showered upon her.

So, that injury-induced change of custody was probably for the best.

It is shocking how much this little guy looks like a toddler-aged Bud.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at

GPS Lexicon

“I’m serious as a heart attack, she was about to fall out!”

When we moved back to North Carolina and I started high school there was a language barrier, and the previous statement rang especially odd to my ears.  I spoke English, the same root language as my new classmates, but there was a definite learning curve to, shall we say, the fringe on top.Colloquialisms (I’m shocked; I spelled it right the first try.  Lord love a spell check.).  The local color of our language.  It’s y’all versus you guys (Mom’s from Jersey, I use both interchangeably).  It’s hind end, versus hiney, versus butt, versus bum (It’s how the folks on my Dad’s side of the family say it in Pittsburgh).  It’s tennis shoe versus sneaker.

When my sister-in-law from Perquimans County was cranky, she’d later apologize for being “ill”.  And people from that area also call chicken and dumplings, “chicken pot pie”; or maybe her family is just kinda “quirky”.

An illustration from the New Orleans novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy O’Toole.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

Linguists used to be able to tell by your speech where you were born and raised.  In New Orleans they had completely different accents and word usage within blocks of each other.  There was one neighborhood where everybody had both a New York and Southern accent, with a soupçon of French.

In Baltimore the natives had an odd mélange of Southern, Northern, and a dash of almost British.  And you probably won’t have a waitress call you “Shug”, to her you are “Hon”.  And their hometown has two syllables, not three, as in Ball’more.

The cast of the first season of Homicide: Life on the Streets.  The best show ever on television, and based in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh, my dad’s hometown has a completely unique accent and vocabulary.  I can always pick it out when I hear it.  I have surprised the heck out of many strangers in grocery stores and malls.  But it’s so very distinctive that once you hear it, you can always identify it.

Folks from the upper Midwest speak with a unique inflection—think Sarah Palin and the movie Fargo.  It comes from the large number of immigrants from Nordic nations.  They also have a vocabulary that’s all theirs.  Don’t ask your new workmate where the water fountain is; they call it a “bubbler”, which I must say is way more festive.  If you’re ever at a potluck in Minnesota, there’s no casseroles, but plenty of “hot dishes”. Anyone who’s ever listened to a JFK speech or a bad imitation of one knows that from Massachusetts northward people have a distinctive way of talking.  They also have unique pronunciations—Worcester becomes Wooster, Grosvenor?  That “S” is silent.

If you’re hungry and order a sub, you’ll get funny looks, but no sandwich.  Ask for a grinder.  If you want an after-dinner drink, head to a “spa” (corner store), or a “packie” a liquor store.  It’ll be wicked good.A visit to the Southwest could require the occasional use of a translator.  If there’s word of a haboob in the area, it’s not a scarf, a body part, or a bird.  It’s a dust storm that is so massive it can be seen from space, so go inside.  Norteño is a style of music from Northern Mexico that is dangerously catchy.

And California?  Some (but not all) residents really do sound like surfer dudes that have spent a bit too much time in the sun.But the sad truth is that all these distinctive words and accents are disappearing faster than hushpuppies at a fish fry.  Because distance and unfamiliarity are dissolving due to connectivity and the migratory nature of the population, all those interesting geographic differences could soon be a thing of the past.

And the very thought of that makes me tore slam up.Thanks for your time.