Inside talk

Launching into Limbo

If you ever find yourself in the delightful position of overhearing one of my family’s conversations, I guarantee you will, at one point or another, be completely and utterly lost. In fact, you’ll be lucky to decipher half of it.

My parents, my sister and I have a distinct way of talking with one another that is very different from how we address anybody else. Our conversations are riddled with favorite movie references, lighthearted imitations of friends or family, quotes from people we’ve met and recollections of places we’ve visited over the years. As in other families, a discussion of ours does not pass without recalling some memory the four of us share.

To this day, my dad continues to quote one of my classmates from elementary school (now in college, like me), who said something he found funny. After watching “Mrs. Doubtfire” together at least 50 times in the past 12 years, my family references the movie wherever and whenever appropriate — even an ordinary “Hello” is sometimes transformed into an exaggerated, Doubtfirean “Helloooooo.” And then there was our kind tour guide in Peru who had a particular fondness for the four of us. “Beautiful family,” he would call us, in his thick Peruvian accent. Sure enough, four years later, this phrase has become firmly cemented in the Rajninger lexicon.

Akin to a dialect that has gradually evolved within its own sociocultural context, my family’s vernacular has morphed and grown to encompass years of shared experiences. Our words, constructed of memories spanning almost two decades, are like photo albums or home videos. But rather than sitting in an unopened cabinet or gathering dust on the mantel, our words actively revive the past, launching me into particular moments and encounters I’ve had throughout my life.

In some cases, such as that of my elementary school classmate, the chosen expressions seem entirely random. Some linger and others do not, kind of like slang. But unlike “yeet” or “lit” — ridiculous terms that hold no significance at all to the average speaker — ours have meaningful and personal origins. They are kernels that carry with them stories from time passed.

And there are many more:

If my family thinks something is funny (or not), you might hear one of us quote Silas Ramsbottom’s sarcastically muttered “Hilarious” from “Despicable Me 2,” a movie my sister and I enjoyed watching with my dad growing up.

And my grandpa often says, “Oyoyoy,” when he finds something stressful or mildly upsetting. The four of us get a kick out of it and, over time, lovingly adopted Grandpa’s saying into our own vocabularies. The same goes for “Jeezo!” — what Gram likes to say when she is shocked or taken by surprise.

If you are nearby when my family takes a photograph on vacation, you will inevitably hear one of us jokingly utter the words, “Best pic of the trip,” with a few light chuckles to follow. To any old eavesdropper, this phrase may seem insignificant. And by all means it is, except for the fact that my mom said it during one of our vacations, like, 10 years ago, and for some reason, it stuck.

They all have.

But after leaving for Berkeley last fall, I seldom used my family’s peculiar vocabulary. How could I? At school, there was nobody to speak it with, nobody who could understand or appreciate the meanings behind our strange (and sometimes incomprehensible) jargon. Our language is not one that can be learned, only experienced. And so it remained our family secret, like one colossal, never-ending inside joke. Really, you had to be there.

And I liked that. Over the years, my sister has sometimes introduced parts of the Rajninger lexicon to her friends, either explicitly or simply by default of using certain expressions around them. But I find I’ve always maintained a tighter grasp, kept our words close. Not because I’m embarrassed or self-conscious of the way I talk with my family, but because these phrases feel overwhelmingly special. And I want them to stay that way.

During my time in Berkeley, I naturally grew somewhat disconnected from our family slang and, as a result, the dozens of memories that helped forge it. As would be the case with any other language, I felt myself beginning to lose fluency. And on some level, that made sense: I wouldn’t live with my family forever, and perhaps letting go of certain family sayings was just another way of moving on, growing up.

Maybe. But I’m not quite ready for that yet.

Since returning to my parents’ house, just speaking with the two of them every day has served as a refreshing reminder of our past. The collective history we’ve built together over the past 19 years continues to live on in our voices, and simple stray words carry the potential to summon vivid mental images, wonderful pieces of a childhood that, over the course of the school year, had begun to slip away.

Together, these strange, silly, meaningful phrases anchor me. And speaking them all is how I know I’m home.

Jericho Rajninger writes the Thursday column on the liminal space between childhood and adulthood during a summer home from college. Contact him at [email protected]