In this age of Jersey Shore, The National Enquirer, Maury Povitch’s “Who’s Your Baby’s Daddy?” and other over-the-top, in-your-face, too-much-information media, I am reading my mother’s diaries.
My mother is the hands-down Queen of Euphemisms, adhering strictly to the unwritten 1950s Norwegian immigrant code of modesty: Never use an expression that may offend when you can substitute a less offensive expression in its place.
As I mentioned earlier, I have tackled the daunting project of transcribing my mother’s 52 years of diaries, from 1954 to 2006. These are not your tell-all soul-baring diaries. These are your “I baked six loaves of bread today and washed the bathroom rugs” kinds of diaries. But hidden amid the faithful recording of her daily tasks are bits and pieces of intriguing history and gossip.
But often this history and gossip is written in code. She doesn’t betray people. She doesn’t give judgmental color commentary on others’ behaviors. She doesn’t divulge any information that might be seen as critical or personal. She uses her euphemisms carefully.
It’s refreshing, it’s maddening, it’s curiosity piquing. “What does she mean by that?” I continually find myself asking, trying to decode her secret language.
Some of her euphemisms are obvious: Charlotte wrote with “news” . . . my aunt Ellen “beamed with news” . . . Edna “announced her news.” The “P” word is never used. (If my mother didn’t think it was right to use the “P” word, then I’m not going to either.)
Many relatives “went to the hospital” without ever having their maladies specifically named. Some medical problems were all right to discuss: “blood poisoning” seemed to be a popular diagnosis in the ‘50s. But other relatives might spend days or weeks bedridden, and my mother wouldn’t give a hint as to what their problems were. How much do you want to bet that they were “lady problems” and “men problems”? (See, she’s got me doing it, too.)
Mental illness existed in their families, but wasn't openly discussed. Occasionally someone might have a “nervousness” or a “collapse.” But diagnoses and outcomes were never mentioned.
A favorite dog is run over by the milk truck. Seemingly, we never mourned. We buried it and looked for another dog. A beloved aunt suddenly dies. A complete report is given on what was served at her funeral lunch. But for Pete’s sake, we don’t get into that touchy-feely stuff.
So the diary transcribing has also become an exercise in reading between the lines, reading into the euphemisms. I’m not critical—in fact, I might be nostalgic for a time when people used a little dignity when discussing the lives of others and themselves.
So if you grew up in our neck of the woods and are living in fear that your long-hidden family secrets will surface as I transcribe my mother’s diaries, you can rest easy. Your secrets are safe. It would take Samuel Morse himself to decode some of the allusions created by the Queen of Euphemisms, my diary-writing mother.