Years ago, when my niece, Lauren, was about two years old, she coughed.
Perhaps the cough was a bit louder or longer than usual. Maybe it was a tad phlegmy. Perhaps it was followed by a hiccup. I’m not sure, but something about this cough made it more special than other coughs. The cough’s significance, however, did not escape my sister, Gina.
Gina proceeded to feel Lauren’s forehead, press her ear up against her chest, and look in the child’s mouth, ears, and nose.
My grandmother and I watched this do-it-yourself doctoring with fascination. When Grandma and I weren’t staring at Gina’s antics, we glanced at each other and chatted telepathically:
“Lauren just coughed, right? We didn’t not see something, right? Is the kid bleeding out her eyes? Is her skin sloughing off? Did she cough up a less essential internal organ – like a gall bladder or a meatball-size chunk of liver?”
Eventually, Gina completed her examination and declared that an appointment with the pediatrician would be necessary. “Just to be safe,” she said with an assertive nod.
At that, Grandma turned to me, sighed and said, “That sister of yours takes those kids to the doctor if they fart crooked.”
I then laughed for the next three days.
That line, in my view, is the quintessential Grandma quote, a fine example of her crass and caustic German humor. But the writer part of me digs the line, too, because it does such a good job in describing who the speaker is. It’s a line with a built in backstory.
First off, doesn’t that line seem tailor made for an elderly person? It’s a great zinger, but the zinger doesn’t sound modern. “Fart crooked?” There’s a sort of do-it-yourself old-fashioned construction to the phrase. (It reminds me of a bon mot from an older woman I used to work with; she described her old car as a “turd boiler.”) Someone who says “fart crooked” (or turd boiler) probably also says “clicker” instead of “remote” and “ice box” instead of “refrigerator.”
“Fart crooked” suggests a working class background to me, too — though I’m not exactly sure why. I’m stereotyping, I suppose. “Fart crooked” just doesn’t seem to be a natural fit for The Lord of the Manor.
Also a line like that can only be uttered by a parent, I think. It suggests a certain type of parent, too – one who says, “Get outta my house and don’t come back ’till supper.” Such a parent does not take a kid to the doctor because of a cough – and is more than happy to mock a parent who would. Grandma’s line declares, “I speak from experience. And you know nothing.”
See why the writer in me loves that line? It’s not just a fart joke. It’s a fart joke with subtext! When I write characters for the stage, I love to discover lines that not only show a character’s personality, but also suggest a character’s life story.
Like most writers out there, I have a file filled with Story Ideas. I also have a binder ring of Meaty Quotes. In it are dialogue snippets that I hope to use in a story someday. I recommend this technique highly. Even if you never use any of the quotes, the file will always be good for a few laughs.
Most of the quotes I have accumulated have been uttered by members my family — so my file doubles as an instant fond-memory generator.
My Grandma has been dead for many years now, but her smart remarks live on. And I still can’t help but laugh.