Bellyschnabel

My maternal grandfather, born in 1911, grew up in the Texas Hill Country. Granddaddy and his twin brother, Calvin—third or fourth generation Texans, depending on which side of his family you consulted—didn’t learn English until shortly before entering first grade. In their community, everyone spoke Texasdütsch, a dialect of German. When Granddaddy married my grandmother, of English descent, he all but quit speaking Texasdütsch. And during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when my mother and her siblings came along, German wasn’t terribly popular in the US, as you can imagine, so he never taught his children his childhood language.

The Rechenthin children, Clifton, Eva, Clarence, and Calvin—engineer, biologist, soil scientist, and deceased following his sophomore year at Texas A&M.

A few words did trickle down to the grandkids. We reflexively said, “Gesundheit,” when someone sneezed, and we called our bellybutton a “Bellyschnabel.” When I was in college, I met a German exchange student and rattled off my merger German vocabulary, including “Bellyschnabel.” His look of confusion alarmed me. Turns out, my family’s word for bellybutton was just that: a family word.

Granddaddy, a scientist who went jogging every morning at five, suffered a series of strokes when he was in his eighties that began with memory loss. One evening, he returned upset from a course he taught on Texas wildflowers at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. He hadn’t been able to recall the Latin name of a specimen—this was a man who’d written a book about Texas wildflowers that’s still in print, who could rattle of a list of names a native herb had and relate any number of tales about it, how, for instance, the Indians had used it and then the settlers. For soap, to dye, or heal a burn.

In the Great Depression, when Doris Hudspeth was a college student, the arrival of a young man to town created quite a stir. He had car. He had a degree. He had a job. What a catch!

Eventually, Granddaddy lost the ability to speak. My grandmother, whom we called GrandDoris, read to him daily, an exercise he enjoyed, but the pleasure of discussing books, music, gardening, and photography was over—until his older sister came to visit. Much to GrandDoris’s astonishment, the siblings struck up a deep conversation; they were speaking Texasdütsch! Around this time, I lived abroad. I’d married to a Swiss native and immersed myself in another German dialect, Schwyzerdütsch. I never got to try out my skills with Granddaddy; he passed away shortly after his conversation with his sister.

Type “Clarence Rechenthin” into a search engine, click on Images, and your screen will fill with photos of wildflowers my granddaddy took during his field work for Texas Soil Conservation Service.

Now, with my understanding of German, I’ve gone back to thinking about that curious word “Bellyschnabel.” By my reckoning, it could be a mash-up of English and Texasdütsch (which itself is quite a mash-up). Having raised three trilingual kids (English, German, and French), I know too well, how mixed languages can get. “Hocken” is the verb the Swiss Germans use for sitting (as do the Pennsylvania Dutch, many of whom have Swiss roots). If our son left a seat for a second and returned to find it occupied, he’d say, “Hey, I was hocking there!” For some reason, I always think of the more vulgar definition of “to hawk” when I hear this construct. (We got a good laugh, anyway, watching Finding Nemo and hearing “Mount Wannahawkaloogie,” the fish-tank volcano’s name.)

(Our eldest daughter holds the Family Polyglot Prize. One evening at the dinner table, she put down her cutlery, pushed away her cleaned plate and said, “I am schon finis!”)

The German word for navel is “Nabel,” so couldn’t “Bellyschnabel” be “belly’s Nabel” with a Germanic-pronunciation twist to better fasten the words together?

Who knows? Sometimes mysteries are best left mystifying.

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