THE QUAKER CAFÉ, Brenda Bevan Remmes's debut novel, is brimming with Southern charm. With charm to spare, Brenda shares here the story of her family's tradition of replacing hard-to-pronounce words with a simpler, handier phrase: "Skip-it." The unconventional practice was started by a nanny who would not be cowed by words she'd never learned, and evolved into a lesson about reading between the lines --- which still proves useful today.
A stoic woman in a starched high neck dress sits with a book in her hand surrounded by five attentive children. The woman, Alice Warren, had fled the fires in Atlanta to move in with her sister to a plantation home built three years prior to the firing on Fort Sumter. Shortly thereafter, they could no longer make the mortgage payments. As rumors swirled that Sherman’s men were burning their way through Columbia and headed for Camden, my great-great grandfather bundled the books in burlap bags, looped ropes at the top and hoisted them down from the attic into the six hollow columns.
The women and children survived the war. Their men did not. Neither did the books.
The next picture that includes a book is on the lap of my great-grandparents, looking very Presbyterian. I’m told she read to the children exclusively from the Bible.
And then along came Molly. Molly’s family had worked in the fields and kitchens through three generations, and after slaves were freed, they stayed to do the only work they knew how. My grandmother, widowed at a young age, worked hard to keep the farm and a small landscaping business afloat. She had a cook and a baby nurse to watch over her six children while she spent her days outside tending to plants and the yards of other people. There was no money for pictures.
Instructed to read to the children whenever she could, Molly preferred to tell a story, but if reading was required, so be it, she’d read. Her own education had been limited by her family’s need to bring in enough money to feed them all. While the white children were in school, she cleaned houses. When they got home, she read them stories.
Big words challenged Molly, and she developed a habit of substituting any words she could not decipher by simply saying “skip-it”. Thus, Rapunzel became Skip-it. “Skip-it, Skip-it, let down your hair.” Robin Hood went riding through the skip-it, and the fairy godmother in CINDERELLA would wave her magic wand and say “skip-it.” She said she was teaching the children an important lesson in life: to understand what people meant, not what they said.
I now have a lovely four-year-old grandson who is being raised in London and enunciates his words with British precision. I still have my Southern drawl. I say budder. He says BUTter. Sometimes we don’t understand one another.
He loves books, and he likes order and correctness, but he tweaks my English a bit too frequently for my liking. “BB,” he calls me. “BB, you read that wrong.”
“No, I didn’t,” I protest.
“It’s not a DOE-waah.” Red bangs scatter across big blue eyes. “It’s a D…D…D” He says the D sound phonetically as his mother has taught him. “OR..OR…DOOR."
“No,” I insist, teasing him. “They say it wrong over here.”
He pounds his tiny fist on the book. “No, they don’t.”
“Tell you what,” I say, “If I’m not saying a word right, just say skip-it."
“Skip-it?” He questions. “What’s that?”
“It means you know what I mean, not what I say.”
He mulls this over for a few seconds. “Okay,” he agrees with a nod. “Skip-it.”
I’m there for several more days with skip-it incorporated between the two of us like a secret code. When I get ready to leave, I kneel to the floor and hold out my arms. “How about a hug?”
“Skip-it,” he says, flashing a devilish grin over his shoulder as he runs in the opposite direction.
“What did you say to your grandmother?” my son’s voice booms through the hallway.
“No, no,” I hurriedly jump to my grandson’s defense. “He’s not being rude, he’s reading between the lines.”
“Which means?” my son asks.
“He’s learning a Southern tradition.”