We had ice cream.

My family has been lucky the past few years to be able to spend Christmas all together — for many years, that didn’t happen. It’s still a novelty when we are all in the same place (sadly, without my dad these last 6 years).

I think it’s a unique experience whenever families gather, paticularly the conversation, which sometimes leaves outsiders, well, outside. I first read about the phenomenon many years ago in a Garrison Keillor book. He wrote about a man (can’t remember if it was himself or another) who felt as if he’d entered a foreign country when he went to his wife’s family home, a place where everyone spoke in non sequiturs or downright nonsense. For example, his normally very coherent wife would ask her father to fill a glass “just to the second chicken.”

This reference to a childhood cup was one of many obscure inside jokes that went into the familyspeak at this house.

I loved reading that passage because my own family gatherings are filled with familyspeak. It’s never simply, “I knew it!” but always “I knew it, Marie!” (This because nearly 40 years ago, the little sister of my childhood friend, Marie, uttered those words in an apparently quite memorable way when playing at our house.) My niece, now 30, recently revealed she’d always wondered who Marie was.

My family also has the odd habit of referring to our parents as “my mum” and “my dad” when speaking to each other: “My mum called me this morning” or “My dad used to do that.” This grew out of needing some way to refer to them other than Mummy and Daddy, which was a little embarrassing after we all became adults. But in the end, saying “my mum” and “my dad” doesn’t really help. We’ve all had other people hearing us ask, “Don’t you have the same mother and father?”

Many conversations are sprinkled with references to The Wizard of Oz, a movie not merely loved but revered at our house. You’d be surprised how often the dialog fits day-to-day life…“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?” “How would you like someone to come and pick something off of you?” “You don’t want any of those apples.” “I’m a little muddled…” “These things must be done delicately.” “She bit her dog?” That last one is particularly applicable, rolled out whenever someone just isn’t getting it.

Star Trek references are also common. My one brother and I watched the original series so many times, we once listed all 100+ episodes. Many snippets apply, particularly because of the dramatic inflection.

Childhood utterances from 40 or 50 years ago often come back to life — “It’s an emuhgency” comes in handy, said urgently, like a little boy who couldn’t say his r’s who managed to set his socks on fire on the gas heater in the bathroom. Or when you need to sound innocent…”I dunno. I just turned around and bumped it with my elbow…” first used to describe how the gaping hole appeared in the plaster wall in the hall outside the bathroom, a hole that just happened to be the size of the plunger. (This akin to Ralphie’s icicle story when he broke his glasses with his new Red Rider BB gun on Christmas morning.)

Finally, there’s the all-purpose, frequently needed phrase that references one of those feel-good/do-good commercials from the Church of Latterday Saints. A little girl returns home from a party, anxious to tell her family about the great time she had. One by one, mom, dad, sister, shrug her off without listening to her story. Finally, she sits down dejectedly next to the dog, saying tearfully, “We had ice cream.”

It’s quite effective — try it the next time you desperately want to say something, but no one is listening. If your family is like mine, you still won’t be listened to, but it always gets your point across, and maybe even a laugh from those in the know.

 Home is not where you live but where they understand you. 
                                           ~ Christian Morgenstern