Select Page

“Don’t be impertinent!”

Oh, how I remember that voice and those words. I can never hear the word impertinent without going instantly to that moment.

The speaker was my maternal grandfather. He was watching me sweep some dirt up and had made a suggestion for how I ‘could’ handle the dustpan. When I declined to take the suggestion, that soft gentle voice shifted immediately to a sharp staccato without it even being raised.

That made a lasting impression. When Grandpa made a suggestion, it wasn’t a suggestion. He is the only person I can ever remember using the word. I didn’t even know what it meant, didn’t care. Grandpa had made it very clear, his word was law.

I know now, I wasn’t actually impertinent to him. I had responded to his suggestion with, “I like to do it this way Grandpa. Thank you though.” To have been impertinent, I would have needed to be rude or disrespectful.

Grandpa had come from a generation where non-compliance with elders was disrespectful. Not to mention, he was a navy man, having served in two world wars. During WW2 he served in Halifax, Nova Scotia training sailors. He was used to being obeyed.

I remember my mother telling me a story once about one of her encounters with ‘impertinent’. She had been given the job of scrubbing the basement stairs. When she was finished Grandpa came by to give his blessing. He didn’t give it, he told her to “do it again and use some elbow grease this time.”

She didn’t know what ‘elbow grease’ was. When she was telling the story, that caught my attention. The first time she told me to use elbow grease she was angry when I asked what it was. Back to the story. She went off in search of it.

After a while, Grandpa notice her searching around the house and asked her if she had finished scrubbing the stairs. She told him she was still looking for the elbow grease. “Don’t be impertinent!” he told her as he reached for his belt. He realized before he actually used the belt, she had no idea what elbow grease was.

He laughed and then told her. Oh, dear reader, just in case you don’t know. Being told to use some elbow grease is a figure of speech meaning nothing else but manual work is required. In the case of the stairs, mother was to put more effort into the cleaning job.

The phrase dates back to 17th century England when the poet Andrew Marvell in his poem “Rehearsal Transpros’d” wrote:

“Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer ink and Elbow-grease, do more Harm than a Hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.”

He was referring to the power of the written word to be circulated unhindered while a meeting could be broken up by the speakers opponents. It was later the expression came to be associated with manual labour.

Before you get the idea, Grandpa was not a tyrant. My memories of him are not long as Alzheimer’s was claiming him by the time I became more aware of him. I do remember him as a quiet man, and soft-spoken when he spoke.

He loved his plants. When they lived in the country not far from where I currently live, he and my uncle built a greenhouse where Grandpa would spend his days raising and tending to plants.

I can remember visiting there and him spending time with me showing me his plants and explaining things about them. I didn’t remember most of what he told me, but, the time with him left me with good memories of him.

Most of the time I try to avoid being impertinent.