The subject of ears seemed to come up a lot. Maybe it was because we spent so much time seated in crowded classrooms with our hands folded on the desk in front of us. Or because we had such an incurable penchant for doing things, in school and elsewhere, that required a grown-up to respond with a stern lecture. The ears were often the first stop for sensory input on the way to the brain. And speaking directly to the ears about the ears increased the chances of comprehension.
That was the premise, anyway.
In one ear and out the other was a frequent complaint, a dismissive analysis of our collective lack of skill at processing most new information. This phrase was meant to suggest that there was no brain between those ears, no chance of interpreting what had just been said with any kind of accuracy. But for me, the problem was more complicated. I tended to look at things from every possible angle, and then get stuck on the least helpful of them.
“That’s ridiculous,” I would think. “In one ear and out the other. If anything, it would go into both ears, then cross paths and exit on the opposite sides. That’s the only way it makes any sense.”
While these thoughts pinballed around in my skull, I invariably missed what was being said next. Usually, it was something about the homework assignment, what was going to be on the next test, or the instructions for a major project I would later swear I was never told about.
One more sound out of you and I’ll pin your ears back. I’d never heard this at home, so when the teachers in our Catholic school said it, I had no idea what it meant. My mother used straight pins when she was hemming a dress. I assumed the nuns were talking about a similar operation, although I couldn’t see how it would work. You’d really need to use a safety pin, or something with a clasp, but I wasn’t about to suggest that. Besides, they seemed to be saying that they wanted us to be quiet. I wasn’t completely dense.
Sometimes the nuns changed the warning to Another word and I’ll box your ears. For years I took this to mean that they were going to cover our ears with little boxes, which seemed as impractical as the pins. In reality, what they intended was much worse: left hooks and right crosses to the sides of our heads. This was one of those situations in which ignorance resulted in less emotional trauma than would have been produced by any ability to pay attention and understand things.
From your mouth to God’s ears. The nuns never said this one, I guess because it would have been sacrilegious to suggest that God needed ears, any more than he would have needed any physical organ. And now that I consider the matter as a mature adult, I don’t believe I ever pictured God with ears, either. Eyes and a mouth, maybe, and hair, for sure. And a golden clipboard. But not ears.
My mother always asked the same question after I took a bath. Did you wash behind your ears? I would inevitably answer that I did, even though I hadn’t. Of all the places that needed a good washing, the region behind my ears was so far down the list that the water was cold and gray long before it would have occurred to me to focus there. I could barely remember there was anything behind my ears. What could possibly have been going on back there that it became such a cause for concern? And why didn’t she tell me before I got into the bathtub — or better yet, while I was in there?
Your ears must have been burning today. My mother and father both said this to some friends of theirs who walked into our house unexpectedly one evening. They had been talking about these people just a few hours earlier, but how my parents could have known about the condition of their ears was beyond me. I assumed they must have gotten too much sun, or had some kind of rash.
She was grinning from ear to ear. This was always a key detail of a story being told about someone who wasn’t there, so I never got to see it for myself. I tried doing it in the mirror once and ended up pulling a muscle in my face.
When someone was about to say something not meant for children, they would advise me to close my ears. Unlike the grinning thing, I was almost positive this couldn’t be done.
He has his father’s ears. Every time I turned around, one aunt or another was saying this about me, probably after a prolonged attempt to identify my most interesting feature. I would deny it, of course, not quite clear on why there was a need to prove ownership of body parts I’d been born with. But the more agitated I got about it, the more they laughed at me.
He’s still wet behind the ears. After hearing this expression a few hundred times, I finally realized that it meant the person was naïve, or inexperienced. The official explanation is that babies and farm animals are born all wet and slippery, and the place behind their ears is the last area to dry. In addition to adding to the mystery of why people are so obsessed with that useless spot behind someone’s ears, I have to wonder who noticed that it’s the slowest to dry off. That doesn’t even seem to qualify as information.
I’m all ears. Whenever anyone said this, I would picture them covered with ears, not the most attractive image on its own. But it also meant that the person was listening intently, which caused me to feel anxious, as though I’d better say something great to justify such a hideous transformation. I also had to work hard at not confusing this with “You’re all thumbs today,” an observation that was made when I had trouble getting my arm into the sleeve of my blazer, or when I’d dropped my pencil for the eleventh time in ten minutes.
We have zucchini coming out of our ears. Also: We’re up to our ears in zucchini. I heard some variation of these every fall, when the garden in our little backyard would be overflowing with vegetables. They’re coming out of our ears and we’re up to our ears. What? I just couldn’t figure out how those two descriptions could both be true. Then it dawned on me: The zucchini must have gone in one ear and out the other.
As I said before, I wasn’t completely dense.