Orcos (or’-kos): Swearing that a statement is true.
“I swear on my mother’s grave that it’s true.” This was a popular saying where I grew up. It supposedly bolstered your avowal of truth by bringing your dead mother up, and the sanctity of her grave, as warrants—if you lied while swearing on her grave at the same time, it would double damn you with disrespect for your dead mother and disrespect for the truth. Swearing on your mother’s grave is a pretty morbid way to establish your credibility, and I’m not sure if my understanding of its rationale is right. But the odd thing was, we were just kids and our mothers were all still alive.
Despite not having a mother’s grave to swear on, we used the credibility-generating saying. To make it work, we discussed it and decided we were referring to future graves. Everybody dies sooner or later, so pushing the grave reference into the future was taken as a good-faith promise to actually swear on a mother’s grave after she died as a way of settling the times you swore on it when it was non-existent. This all made perfect sense to me, and I went on with my life.
Then, ten years later, my mother died of kidney failure. My mother grew up in Arizona. She was an actual cowgirl when she was in her early teens to early twenties. In my favorite picture of her she’s holding a dead 4-foot long rattlesnake in one hand and a six-shooter in her other hand. She was wearing boots and jeans and a flannel plaid shirt. This was topped off by a black cowboy hat with a beautiful concha-decorated hatband, and a belt buckle shaped like a longhorn steer. She met my Dad when he was stationed in Arizona during the Vietnam War. He was a mechanic in the Air Force. That’s all I know.
When they got married Dad had been discharged from the Air Force. They moved to New Jersey where Dad had grown up working in an ESSO refinery in Linden. He got his old job back. He came home every night smelling like a big can of motor oil. I don’t know how my mother stood it, given where she grew up. After I was born, I became the center of Mom’s life, displacing my father. He resented it. He resented me. He would leave me at the bus station or the train station hoping I’d be abducted. I would always show up back at home and he would curse while Mom would cry with joy. But now, me and Dad were following a hearse with Mom’s body on board—driving from New Jersey to Arizona, listening to Bruce Springsteen on the satellite. It made no sense, but my father never made any sense—he was a jerk, a fool, and an idiot. We should’ve flown. After four days driving, we arrived in Sedona, AZ—where Mom grew up and where we were going to bury her. It would be my mother’s grave—the real thing. After she was buried, I took a picture. The grave was pitiful. There was no headstone, just a wooden cross made out of treated 2X4s with Mom’s initials and her birth and death dates on a nailed-on plaque. We probably could’ve bought a nice headstone with what it cost us to drive from New Jersey to Arizona. But, like I said, my father was a jerk, an idiot, and a fool. Let’s add cheap bastard to that.
Now, when I say “I swear on my mother’s grave,” it’s not just an empty catchphrase—she’s actually dead and buried. When I swear on my mother’s grave, I pull out a copy of the picture of her grave I took at the cemetery in Arizona. Then, for further assurance, I give the picture to the person I’m trying to convince of my truthfulness. Usually, they back up saying, “No, no, no. That’s all right. I believe you!” I’m never sure whether they mean it, or whether they’re just trying to get away from me. I swear on my mother’s grave that I just don’t know, but God knows, I’d like to know. I cross my heart and hope to die.
Definition courtesy of “Silva Rhetoricae” (rhetoric.byu.edu).
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