Shooting from the lip

MY mother was an outstanding example of that flourishing species, the English gardener. Any weekend, rain (especially rain) or shine you could expect to find her upended in the herbaceous border. Naturally she expected her three daughters to follow in her muddy footprints, so when we were still quite small she gave us each a minute plot of ground (known as ``my garden'' and proudly outlined with stones). My sisters did very well. Flowers sprang up in their gardens, Joan even grew raspberry canes. In fact, everything they planted flourished. Everything I planted withered -- except the weeds.

In the end Mother presented me with a small clump of rock plant. It was magic. It took over everything, the weeds, the few surviving limp plants. It even swept over the stone border. Nothing could stop it.

Very satisfactory that was until the day I trailed behind my mother while she indulged in that very English pastime, ``showing friends around the garden.'' The visitors were making the usual amazed and admiring noises. Mother was explaining how sorry she was that they weren't here last week when the Gorgonzolas (or something like that) were in full bloom. And all the time she was presenting her guests with snippets of that, cuttings of this, and seeds of everything.

Then one visitor pointed to my magic creeper and asked for a bit of that. ``That,'' said my mother, ``I wouldn't give that to my worst enemy.''

``What's the matter with you?'' she asked after the visitors had left and I was still looking down in the mouth. ``You said you wouldn't give that to your worst enemy, and you gave it to me.'' Without a pause, Mother said briskly, ``Well, you aren't my worst enemy, are you?''

Even when she was still little more than five years old, my sister Margaret was not only a promising gardener, she was developing a talent for that kind of unanswerable answer. Accused, always justly, of some hideous crime, she would counter, ``But you never told me not to.'' For instance, when the chimney sweep abandoned a pile of lovely soft black soot in the garden, ``they'' never thought to tell her and our cousin not to use it for a summertime ``snowball'' fight.

But her master stroke was over the apple affair. While my mother was toiling among the flowers, my father used to experiment with varieties of apples. One autumn he was cosseting the single fruit on an interesting new tree. On no account pick it, he warned. Margaret was always obedient. So she didn't. She just lay on the ground and took a big bite out of it while it was still hanging there. ``You didn't tell me. . . .''

Shooting from the lip is a sure way out of all kinds of embarrass-ment. But how I wish an American friend hadn't told me about his mother. He has shed some doubt on this whole trick of the tongue. ``Bob,'' she told him when he was a young boy trying to pull the wool over her eyes, ``it's not the words you use that are a lie. It's what you intend me to believe by the words.''

Still I'm somewhat comforted by remembering Sir Winston Churchill's way with a baby. If rumor is correct, he didn't think much of the red-faced bundles proud mothers were constantly holding up for his admiring comment. ``Now, that,'' he would say, ``is what I call a baby.''

It's a most useful device. I can recommend it. When a friend asks, ``What did you think of my Home Forum essay?'' don't be embarrassed, simply reply, ``That? That's what I call an essay.'' I guarantee that you will have fled around the corner before she begins to wonder what you meant.

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