Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.
So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].
To her cousins, she was a caution. To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.
She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.”
Rilla never married, famously acknowledging she might have done so had marriage not necessitated the presence of a man in her life. Decades later, a pair of cousins agreed it wasn’t so much men-in-general whom she found offensive. She simply didn’t want anyone telling her what to do. Given that preference, I never understood her fondness for the Ouiji board or her willingness to consult it when decisions were necessary, but inconsistencies are the stuff of life.
Like another of my favorite great-aunts, Rilla was creative and fiercely independent. She lived in her own house and supported herself by weaving, but she left her mark through language. She was our own Mrs. Malaprop, and her sayings have lived on through generations.
Occasionally my mother would shush me by saying, “Don’t be silly. That’s just a fig newton of your imagination.” The strange – and amusing – figure of speech was one she had learned from Aunt Rilla.
It was Rilla who introduced her to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Grables, Rilla who gossiped about the distraught neighbor who’d gone “bersmerk”, and Rilla who insisted on substituting “bosom” for “breast” at the Sunday table. If fried chicken was on the menu and you wanted a piece of that lovely, succulent white meat, you asked for “bosom”. I thought the word sounded far worse than breast and raised some alarming mental images. My mother agreed, but went on to explain the wisdom of doing in Rome as Rilla commanded.
Any woman capable of referring to chicken bosoms with a straight face had to have other euphemisms in her arsenal, and Rilla did. “Fiddlesticks!” was a favorite, and I heard it often enough in childhood to embed it in my own vocabulary.
“Fiddlesticks!” was useful when a cake fell in the oven, or if someone discovered the jello mold in the refrigerator five minutes after everyone shoved back from the dinner table. If my mother looked up to see rainclouds gathering above still-wet laundry on the line, I might hear a triple “fiddlesticks” echoing across the yard as she rushed out to the rescue.
One day I asked her, “Why ‘fiddlesticks’?” “I heard it growing up,” she said. “Aunt Rilla liked to say it, and I got used to using it. It was a nice, inoffensive cuss word.” After a few minutes, she added, “But it’s really shorthand.”
“Shorthand for what?” I asked. “A nice, long, roll-off-the-tongue cussword substitute,” she said. “Fiddlesticks, footsies and spoons. I have no idea what it means.”
I didn’t know, either, but I made good use of the shorter version myself. Every time she heard me say it – “Fiddlesticks!” – Mom would smile and say,”Your Aunt Rilla would be so proud.”
One day in 2012, I used the word “fiddlesticks” in a comment on this blog. Before long, I’d been contacted by a reader who noticed the word and wondered if I’d ever encountered actual fiddlesticks. I hadn’t. I had no idea they were “things”. They are, and their history is quite interesting.
In 1739, a slave rebellion was suppressed in an area known as Stono, outside the city we call Charleston, South Carolina. During the rebellion, slaves used drums to communicate with one another and recruit reinforcements from neighboring plantations. After the rebellion ended, one of several consequences was that drums were outlawed, not only in South Carolina but in all Southern colonies.
Because of the ban, African drumming traditions were transformed, and the practice of “beating straws” became common. Originally, the percussive sound was produced by beating broom corn, or sorghum, against an instrument’s strings. Later, thin pieces of wood were used and “fiddlesticks” were born.
Fiddlesticks remain a part of traditional American music. Here, fiddler Eric Marten introduces a youngster to the use of fiddlesticks at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, New York.
Fiddlesticks are common in traditional Cajun music, too. Dewey Balfa (1927-1992), teamed here with his nephew Todd, provides a marvelous example of the form.
Tim Eriksen, balladeer, fiddler, shape-note and Sacred Harp singer and promoter of what he likes to call “Hardcore Americana” also enjoys combining the fiddle with some sticks.
Fiddlesticks are only part of the story, of course. There still are those “footsies” and “spoons” to be explained. Given the musical backstory for “fiddlesticks”, I can’t help thinking the other references may be musical as well.
My own dad taught me to play spoons, one of the most down-home of percussive instruments. And as my favorite busker, Abby the Spoon Lady, has shown the world, spoon-playing can reach some pretty exalted heights.
As for “footsies”, the percussive sound of human feet on a floor or dance board probably is best known through “Riverdance”. But in small southern towns and Appalachian hollows, along American rivers and on front porches that never will be seen, all the forms of step dance, buck dancing, clogging and flat-footing continue on.
I’ll never know how Rilla understood her famous phrase, of course. But the piling up of details over the years makes me consider the possibility that she was a bit of an early 1900s technophobe. The smashing of phonograph records may have accorded perfectly well with her battle cry, “Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons”. What seems on its face a bit of Lewis Carroll-like nonsense may in fact have been a plea on behalf of homemade music, the sort that engenders community and participation.
Whatever the truth, I’ll never again utter the word “fiddlesticks” with quite the same thoughtlessness. And who’s to say that, putting away dishes one night, I might not pause at the spoons, turn them this way and that, and then accompany myself in a dance?
I’ll have to be careful, though. Appearances can be relieving, and the neighbors might think me bersmerk.