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John's Column: Family Bartlett’s

by John O’Brien
Danny Sagan and Alisa Dworsky, formerly of Tunbridge, now residents on First Ave. in Montpelier, once confided to me that a dinner party is a “forced event.” With the best of intentions, we all wake up in the morning swearing that today is the day we clear off the kitchen table, vacuum the mudroom and pumice the toilet bowl, but how often do our to-dos become ta-das? Thus the “forced event.” There’s nothing like the imminent arrival of six guests for us to get in touch with our inner Martha Stewart: “There’s no toilet paper!” “Do something with that dead mouse in the cupboard!” “Can you smell the compost from there?” Panic is the mother of hygiene.
I considered “forced event” such an apt phrase that I adopted it. Now it’s part of the family vocabulary, used for those special occasions and happily attributed. All families have their own oral Bartlett’s, familiar quotations from friends and family and even strangers that are referenced almost daily, sometimes annually, but frequently enough that the clan gets the joke or understands the patois.
Children, of course, are probably the most quoted. My stepson, Ira, age six, is the Oscar Wilde of our family Bartlett’s. At three, his idea of a big number was “fortyonehundred.” This passed, amongst his relatives, into common usage. Now in first grade, exposed to the new math, he’s ramped up. If his brother, Eli, age 9, has a “trillion million” of something, Ira announces, with exactitude, “I have infididity. No…I have infididity plus one.”
A year or two ago, Ira, or perhaps his cousin of the same age, Avry, decided that “incest” was a lot easier to pronounce than “obsessed.” A common observation of Ira’s: “Eli’s incest with moken troll.” Translation: My brother is obsessed with remote control vehicles.
Needless to say, around the hollers of Tunbridge, you can often hear grown adults proclaim, “She’s incest with Facebook,” or “He’s incest with guns.” “How many guns does he have?”  “Fortyonehundred.”
Reassuringly unsure about what’s fact or fiction, Ira will often ask, “For real?” after some adult assertion. If I say, “I once shot a man in Reno just to see him die,” Ira will solemnly question my past, “For real?” Last week, at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, watching the harbor seals lazily swim to and fro, I said with a sigh, “I’ve never seen a mermaid or a unicorn in my life.” Ira, dumbfounded at my barren existence, gasped, “For real?” One can see that a childlike “For real?” is the perfect, family-friendly response for dealing with toppers, anglers, salesmen, preachers, politicians, and athletes named Barry or Roger.
Sober adults are also good for a repeatable line. A quip is good for a laugh, but the completely earnest have a staying power all of their own. I’m one of those irritating last-minuters who barely makes a deadline or just misses it. Years ago, when the White River Junction post office was open until 7 p.m., I’d often drive down from Tunbridge to mail a package that had to go out that day. One day, arriving when the clock in my car read 7:00, I hustled to the front door. The front doors automatically opened. As I zipped towards the counters, a familiar USPS employee—a lookalike for a medieval executioner—slammed the security portcullis down in my face and informed me, with a glum satisfaction, “Not today, buddy.” The line stuck and now whenever I’m turned back by rejection, literally or figuratively, I quote this philatelic Quasimodo.
Once, a Tunbridge local—I’ll call him D.—who had spent the day as a flag person on the Route 110 bridge overhaul, in response to getting razzed by the construction crew, called them “labians” when “lesbians” was the word he was searching for. This retort did not go unnoticed. While D. may have forgotten the incident, just last weekend, I saw two labians walking hand-in-hand down State Street.
My partner, Emily, recently discovered an Internet sub-sation (something less than a sensation) called Las Vegas Barbie. I don’t know what this woman’s real name is, but she looks not unlike a Barbie doll. She wants to be a celebrity—and maybe, thanks to the web, she is. She appears to be a stay-at-home mom. She also owns a serval. About the size of a bobcat, this African native, dubbed “Zeus,” figures prominently in Las Vegas Barbie’s YouTube videos. The comments posted after these self-promoting shorts range from supportive to vituperative. One anonymous response leapt out for it’s multitudinous wrongness: “why that b**** got a hyena.” Every family needs to occasionally upgrade their “WTF,” and at the moment, “why that b**** got a hyena” is our trending retort to all that is inexplicable.
The quote I recite the most often comes not from a person but a postcard. At a Russian grocery in Nashua, NH, I found this postcard depicting a handsome Soviet era comrade eating steak and peas. In the foreground, an arm offers the Stalinite a small glass of vodka, which, with a karate chop frozen in midair, he declines. “Het!” is all the card says. Nowadays, I often ask myself if I want to tackle a chore and respond with a karate chop and a firm “Het!”
“Do you want to pumice the toilet bowl today?” “Het!”