As my friends and I drove home after dinner, I saw a possum crossing the road.
“Don’t hit the possum,” I helpfully advised. No one else had seen the possum, and Cooki asked, “Was he grinning and eating briars?” John added, “through a picket fence?”
We had just shared a wonderful meal and discussed many topics of interest – dogs, cats, what we’d been up to, and the news of the day. But I suddenly felt that they spoke another language entirely and I wondered how I had ever communicated with them before.
“What?” I asked.
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I was treated to Cooki’s possum impression, and eventually understood the meaning of their seemingly surreal question. A possum would have to stretch its mouth open quite a bit to eat briars and would show a lot of teeth, even more so if it had to reach through a picket fence. So it’s not exactly a joyful grin but instead one with a bit of menace, or maybe just self-satisfaction.
We didn’t hit the possum, and yes, I’m a Yankee. I never thought of myself as such in my four decades of living in the North, but now I accept it. Most of the people I meet are also not from North Carolina, but have fallen in love with it somewhere along the way. And usually I am not aware of a language barrier with my Southern friends.
Most of the expressions I’ve heard aren’t too hard to decode. If asked to cut the lights out, I don’t reach for the scissors. When asked to mash a button on the elevator, it seems pretty clear that I can press it lightly if I choose. I know when someone says “bless your heart” that they are not really blessing my heart. When my neighbor spoke of a goat that was “getting some age on him,” I got it. And when Cooki told me her granny’s favorite saying was “I wouldn’t pee in his ear if his head was on fire,” I was very sorry that I had never had the chance to meet her granny.
But take something like “that made me want to slap my mama.” It sounds like someone has mom issues, anger issues, and other issues I don’t want to even think about. However, the point seems to be that you were so out of your mind with happiness that you thought about doing something unimaginable, something you would never ever do in real life. “When the Cubs got into the World Series, I wanted to slap my mama.” (Sorry mom, that’s just the way I talk now.)
I would like to return to the subject of possums. First of all, I apologize for not previously using the proper spelling of possum: it should be ’possum, short for opossum, as the possum without an O is a whole different marsupial, and lives in Australia and its surrounding islands. Australians no doubt have a whole different set of sayings involving their bushy-tailed friends.
I was familiar with the term “playing ’possum,” that is, playing dead. And yet, it did not stop me and my guy from planning a ’possum funeral when we heard one making woeful noises in the yard one evening. He was immobile when we checked on him, and yet the next morning he was gone.
I was NOT familiar with the saying “that ’possum’s on the stump.” My first thought was that it was a political term, that the ’possum was campaigning for his or her candidate of choice. Even now, I am not able to visualize why this expression actually means “as good as it gets.” “The Cubs are in the World Series? That ’possum’s on the stump.”
My neighbor’s dog would understand, I think. She adores ’possums, and likes to gently bring them inside in her mouth. So for Grace, I imagine a ’possum on a stump would be like having her favorite thing placed on a pedestal. I’ll try to see it from her point of view.
Amy Trojanowski likes to write. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org