Mama Milk My Goat
Whenever anyone in my family was feeling sorry for herself and expressing it to a point where it was noticeable, another member of the family could be counted upon to use the family saying for such occasions, “Well, Mama milk my goat,” we would say, and if the person’s nose wasn’t too far out of joint, they might snap out of it. Or, alternatively, stalk away to seclusion where they could fully feel the full extent of their misery without anyone trying to dissuade them from it. Why did we say this? Because my mother had told us all that it was what my grandmother, her mother-in-law, used to say.
My grandmother, a master at martyrdom, used to say it with a small uptake of breath, in a trembling voice. I can remember hearing her do so, although it may be that sort of childhood memory that grows out of a family tale being told again and again. Needless to say, I had no reason to question its frequent usage until I got to college and again and again was met by a blank look when I issued the rejoinder. Finally, when I reported this strange fact to my folks over the dinner table during a trip home, my dad got a twinkle in his eye and confessed.
What my grandmother, who was Dutch, actually used to mutter when when she was feeling sorry for herself was, “Mama Miet mi Dote!” (Mama might be dead.) Only my mother (her daughter-in-law), who didn’t understand Dutch, thought she was saying “Mama Milk My Goat.” My dad thought this was funny so never told us differently. So even now, “Mama milk my goat,” is occasionally what I say to anyone who is playing the martyr, and if they have any curiosity at all and ask me why, I tell them this story.
Note: For those of you who speak Dutch, I know that “Mama miet mi dote” is not how “Mama might be dead” translates into Dutch. Might might be “machen” and dead might be “dood,” but the whole phrase doesn’t translate into “Mama “machen mi dood,” either. Perhaps it was a local dialect or perhaps my ear heard the words differently, or perhaps it is just one of those family stories half legend, half fact. At any rate, if you speak more Dutch that I do, I am more than willing to be informed about what it was my grandma really said. (I only know the alphabet, taught to me by my grandma, and “Mama miet mi dote!”)
Here’s another poem I wrote a few years ago about my grandma and her sister Susie:
A little weep, a little sigh,
a little teardrop in each eye.
Grandma Jane and her sister Sue,
one wanted one hole, the other, two
punched into their can of milk.
(All their squabbles were of this ilk.)
The rest, of course, is family fable.
They sat, chins trembling, at the table.
When my dad entered, we’ve all been told,
their milk-less coffee had grown cold.
The prompt today was “martyr.”