Accidental Aphorisms

Brad Leithauser praises the passing down of casual but poetic sayings:

Of all the helpful lessons [my grandfather] imparted to me, I recall nothing in any detail. No, after all these years, I can retrieve verbatim only one thing he ever said, and this didn’t originate in his dutiful tutoring. It was a spontaneous remark. One December day, he and I were sitting in the family room. I was probably seven or eight. I glanced out the window and beheld a miracle: the first snowflakes of the year. I uttered an ecstatic cry: “Look! Look! It’s snowing!” And my grandfather replied, “Never be glad to see the snow.”

I loved my grandfather dearly and felt the loss sharply when he died. That I fail to recall anything else he said sometimes seems like a moral failure. But mostly I see it as an example—again—of the fateful caprices by which certain word clusters survive the decades. For this particular advice reverberates within me still: “Never be glad to see the snow.” It’s an apt follow-up to “You think you’re happy now,” or “This may look like a good thing.” And it’s a line that would fit neatly into any iambic tetrameter verse. It would make a perfect refrain in an old-fashioned poem about the disillusionments of youth: “The road is longer than you know. / Never be glad to see the snow.” Or “We hear his echo as we go: / Never be glad to see the snow.”

Similar catchphrases, in which casual comments are promoted into a sort of immortality, doubtless exist in nearly every family, every close friendship. I find this notion deeply heartening—that people are everywhere being quoted for lines they themselves have long forgotten. And of course each of us is left to wonder whether, right at this moment, we’re being quoted in some remote and unreckonable context.