My father spoke in clichés. A conversation with him was 80 percent cliché, 19 percent conjunctions (to connect two or more clichés) and 1 percent real words.
A typical dinner conversation might run something like this:
"Dad, I need a new dress for my violin recital."
"Do you think I'm made of money?"
"You kids are driving me into the poor house."
"Money doesn't grow on trees, you guys. Remember that."
"But Dad ..."
"And finish that pork chop. There are kids starving in Europe."
Or later talking to my mom over a cup of coffee:
"... So, he comes in with some cock-and-bull story about why he was late, like I just fell off a turnip truck, and I say to him, 'Don't give me this song and dance, I've got your number, buddy, you don't have a leg to stand on. Take off and don't let the door hit your ass on your way out.'"
When we were late for school: "Jesus, you kids are slower than molasses in January."
When my boyfriend dumped me: "There are plenty of fish in the sea."
When I begged to go to that party: "You can talk till you're blue in the face. I said no and I mean no."
When I did something fab: "You're a chip off the old block." And not so fab: "Oh, for crying out loud."
And his favorite; a day didn't go by when we didn't hear: "A hundred years from now, nobody will know the difference."
These clichés baffled my siblings and me. Most of the time we didn't know what the hell he was talking about. He could have been speaking Martian.
What 5-year-old can understand "Rome wasn't built in a day," "you can't have your cake and eat it too" or "you're grasping at straws"? But these platitudes were delivered with such solemnity that we bought them, like sacred wisdom handed down through generations, incoherent or not.
And he wasn't alone.
Other dads in the neighborhood—a group of WWII vets with kids and new mortgages trying to make a life for themselves and their families— used them too.
Did the war destroy their ability to converse?
When I was in college, I tried to coax him into having an actual conversation. Not the bunch of sound bites from the abridged dictionary of the shallow and banal that I had grown up with.
"Come on, Dad, talk to me. What did you think of that book?"
"It's neither here nor there."
"What do you mean?"
"Ah, the $64,000-dollar question."
I was hurt by his refusal to talk to us in what I considered a meaningful way. He put up a barrier we could not cross. He held us at arm's length. While we had deep, soulful conversations with our mom, he was the mute stranger who happened to sit at the head of the dining room table and paid for our clothes, violin lessons and college.
It wasn't until after his death that I read a fascinating article in the New York Times by Leslie Jamison about clichés and why we use them. For the first time in my life, I experienced a glimmer of understanding.
"Many of the people I know who use the most platitudes are the ones who have led the hardest lives."
My father was raised by Italian immigrants during the Great Depression. He had 13 or 14 siblings. No one knows the exact number to this day. Sometimes food was so scarce they ate sandwiches made with weeds from their backyard. He survived this brutal childhood only to find himself fighting in a World War, when he should have been in college. Valedictorian of his high school class, he wanted to be a philosophy professor but found himself in the South Pacific. As a vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before they even had a name for it, he'd wake up most nights screaming. There were whispered stories of an aircraft carrier sinking in a fiery blaze. But he never, ever talked about the war.
"What did you do in the war, Dad?"
"This and that. Not much."
Cliché offered him a common bond with others who lived before and through the same thing. It helped him retreat into the soothing comfort of the familiar. Maybe his parents used the same language to cope with their tough lives. Maybe they said "every cloud has a silver lining" or "good things come to those who hustle" and believed it.
It wasn't until his funeral that I learned he was a war hero. Our Uncle Vinnie told us the story in his eulogy. Apparently, my dad saved an aircraft carrier from Japanese kamikaze—suicide bombers. A grateful Navy cook said he'd make him anything he wanted for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Forever. My dad loved steak and eggs. That's all he ate for the rest of the war. They nicknamed him Steak and Eggs.
Sitting with him a few weeks before he died of lung cancer, we had our first real conversation. We talked about his funeral—about cremation opposed to burial, about my mom, his Rosie, and he said if he could do it over again, he'd never start smoking. He talked for a long time and I listened, fighting tears. He must have understood because suddenly he winked at me and said, "Will you miss me when I'm gone? You know, a hundred years from now, nobody will know the difference."