June 23, 2018
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Our ancestors would laugh at our complaints

By Emmet Meara, Special to the News

I know. You are already huddled by the wood stove, complaining about the snow and the cold. Plus that little problem about paying for those Christmas gifts you just had to buy.

And it’s only the first weekend of winter.

We are the soft generation, coming on the heels of “the greatest generation,” which beat up Germany and Japan at the same time. Think about that while you put another pellet package in the fire.

Think about generations ago, facing such a winter. No central heat, no central plumbing, no Burger King.

While perusing “Wise Words and Wives’ Tales,” by Stuart and Doris Flexner (Avon Books, 1993), I discovered the old proverb about “throwing the baby out with the bath water” had real import, going back to the 1600s.

In the bad old days, baths were a sometimes thing. The family would fill a big tub with hot water, which would take most of the day. The man of the house (remember him?) would wash first with nice, clean, hot, soapy water. Then all the other sons and that crusty uncle who was living in the barn, and finally the wife and daughters got to clean up. When everyone was done (imagine the state of the water), it was the baby’s turn. The water was so filthy that there was a real danger that the baby could be, in fact, thrown out with the bath water.

Think about that the next time the shower water is just not hot enough.

I know, your floor is drafty. You can feel those 40-mile-an-hour gale winds down to your socks. Just think about living through the winter with a dirt floor.

Our friends at about.com report that your poor ancestors lived with dirt floors in a thatched roof cottage, and as the winter droned on, they would pile more and more thatch, or thresh, on the floor to absorb the water. It got so bad and so wet that the thresh would slide outside when some poor unfortunate opened the door. Some genius, probably a Capricorn, decided to nail a board on the bottom of the doorway. You know what they called it? We still call it a threshold.

One could guess that is where “dirt poor” came from, too.

Death was never far away in those days and I would guess people didn’t mind quite so much.

For reasons I cannot fathom, everyone drank out of lead cups. The combination of whiskey and lead, for those who never know when to stop, would often render the poor peasant unconscious for a day or two. A neighbor would find the victim lying along the road and take him to the nearest undertaker, if there was one.

The family would lay out the poor victim, while they danced and partied to see whether he would wake up. That’s why they call it a “wake.” Honest to God.

According to another (possibly defunct) Web site concerning burial practices (one of my favorites), the populace was a little more casual about burying people back then. When the graveyards were full in England, they would dig up the coffins, thrown out the bones, then refill the coffin with Uncle Fester and redeposit the coffin in the grave. During this process, scratch marks were often found inside the coffin, indicating the deceased was not really all that deceased at burial time.

The smartest people in the village, probably Capricorns, had a solution. According to wisegeek.com, when they buried anyone, they would tie a string around the wrist. The string would be tied to a bell up in the graveyard. Some lucky stiff got the job of sitting in the graveyard all night, waiting for the bell to ring. And you complain about your job at the jute mill?

Are you ready for this? Although some sources debunk the idea, many more state that this was the origin of “the graveyard shift.” Would I lie to you?

Now stop complaining about the weather and the snow. Think about how good you have it, really. Just think about getting in that tub water after Uncle Fester bathed in it.

Spring training starts Feb. 25, Boston Red Sox against Boston College, Fort Myers, Fla.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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