Many 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, I didn’t notice anything unusual.
But something about that cough made it significant to 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 all of this with fascination. When Grandma and I weren’t staring at Gina, we glanced at each other, chatting telepathically:
“The kid only coughed, right? Did I miss something? Is she bleeding out her eyes? Is her skin sloughing off? Did she accidentally hack 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 was necessary.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Just being safe,” Gina replied. Then she scooped up her befuddled child and strode off with motherly purpose.
At that, Grandma turned to me, shook her head and said, “That sister of yours takes those kids to the doctor when they fart crooked.”
I laughed nonstop for the next three days.
That line, in my view, is the quintessential Grandma quote, a fine example of the old gal’s crass and caustic German humor. I love it.
But the writer in me loves the line, too, because it says so much without saying much of anything. “That sister of yours takes those kids to the doctor when they fart crooked,” does a terrific job in describing who the speaker is.
First off, doesn’t that statement seem tailor made for an old person? “Fart crooked” has a do-it-yourself, old-timey energy to it. (It reminds me of a similar bon mot from an elderly work colleague who described her junky car as a “turd boiler.”) Someone who says “fart crooked” (or “turd boiler”) might also say “clicker” instead of “remote” or “ice box” instead of “refrigerator.”
“Fart crooked” suggests a working-class background to me, too—though I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but “fart crooked” doesn’t sound like something The Lord of the Manor might say. It’s too earthy a phrase to be associated with Old Money.
Also, a line like that can only be uttered by a parent, I think. It suggests a certain type of parent, too—one who wakes you up early on a Saturday morning and 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 roll her eyes at a parent who would). Grandma’s line declares, “I speak from experience, and you know nothing.”
See why the writer in me loves the quote? It’s not just a fart joke. It’s a fart joke with subtext. It establishes myriad facets of Grandma’s character in ways other statements such as, “Your sister worries too much,” or “Lauren’s not sick,” or “Why is Gina taking her to the doctor?” never could.
These are the unique expressions I look for when I write characters for my stories. I love to discover lines that not only show a character’s personality, but also suggest a character’s life story.
Like most writers, I have notebooks filled with Story Ideas, which are invaluable to me and serve as a regular source of inspiration. Similarly valuable is my binder of Meaty Quotes. In it are overheard remarks that tickle my fancy.
Most of the quotes in my Meaty Quote binder have been uttered by members of my family. My wife, for one, comes out with wonderful things all the time. Sometimes I say things that surprise me so much I lunge for the binder to scribble them down. Many of these quotes find their way into my stories, which is wonderful. (My wife’s use of the term “booty bottom,” for example, ended up in my most recent picture book, Sleepy Happy Capy Cuddles.) Most of the quotes, however (like “fart crooked”), do not. But that’s okay; my Meaty Quote binder serves a second function: it transports me back to the time when the words were first said. It’s an instant time machine, a photo album without pictures—and it’s a delight to flip through when I need inspiration or just a short mental break from the writing task at hand.
My Grandma has been dead for many years now, but thanks in part to her unique and unfiltered wit, her memory (and her granddaughter’s crooked farts) will live on forever.