Dr. Jan Meyer: Aging is right on schedule as past intrudes on the present

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

Tooling along in the car recently, some singer was crooning on the radio about drinking his “adult beverage” out of a Dixie cup. Spouse Roger said to me, “Are all paper cups called Dixie cups?” The same phrase in that song had caught my attention, so I too was already thinking about Dixie cups, and had to admit that I didn’t know. But I wasn’t driving, so I could look it up.

What I found was from the best source for American historical facts, the Smithsonian. That site stated that as long ago as 1907, a Boston lawyer named Lawrence Luellen was concerned about the public drinking from a common “tin cup” at public restrooms, parks and other gathering spots. He was sure that was a great way to spread communicable germs.

I remember that tin cup from visiting farms during the summer, where we would often get hot and thirsty when we were outside playing. I recall there was either a tin cup sitting on a nearby stump or stool, or a tin cup with a long handle, much like a large soup ladle, which just sat in the water when not in use. I can’t recall anyone being concerned about passing on our germs, but in retrospect, I am sure we did pass along all kinds of things.

One thought always leads to another, so soon I was thinking about one of the products that my mother sold in her restaurant; they were called Dixie cups! These were small round paper cartons packed with ice cream, and came in a small variety of flavors. The lids were pulled off by a small tab on the side of the round lid, and were just big enough for one serving. Now I wondered what the connection was between those first one-size serving water cups and small cups filled with ice cream.

Again Smithsonian had the answer. The lawyer had teamed up with Kansan Hugh Moore who owned the American Water Supply. Together they began selling individual portions in a five-ounce cup for one penny each. Their enterprise became the Individual Drinking Cup of New York and they renamed their product the Health Cup. They approached the Dixie Doll Company and asked to borrow the name Dixie, because “dix” was a French word meaning “reliable.”

Soda fountains began the innovative process of selling two flavors of ice cream in the same paper cup, and those became known as “Ice Cream Dixies.” Those became what, in my mother’s business, we referred to as Dixie cups.

A couple of days ago I was refilling the paper cup dispenser in our bathroom, and the brand name on the box is “Dixie.” Those original Dixie cups were the start of a whole range of one-use items that now we all regularly use. I guess the final answer to our question was that yes, all paper cups seem to be called Dixie cups.

Another phrase from my childhood also entered my thoughts this week. I am past due for a haircut; it is at that stage where I can’t “do anything with it.” I caught a glance of myself in a mirror and my first reaction was that I “look like the wreck of the Hesperus.” Where in the world, I thought, did that come from? And, yes, it was a term my mother periodically used.

I found the answer to that at an English site called Oxford Learners Dictionaries that stated it originated in a poem published by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1841. The poem was about a father and daughter who died when the ship they were on, the Hesperus, ran into rocks during a very bad storm. Evidently the wreck caused a very messy site, and the phrase has come to mean a person who looks “disheveled, dreadful….less than your best.” That was me when I caught that glance in the mirror.

Two other phrases that were commonly used in our household were “Heavens to Betsy” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd.” According to that same source, “Heavens to Betsy” originated in the U.S. in the latter part of the 19th century, and was used to express mild surprise. It was intended to be a less blasphemous version of “For heaven’s sake” or “For God’s sake.”

 “Heavens to Betsy” evolved into “Heavens to Murgatroyd” in the middle of the 20th century, apparently after the latter phrase became commonly used by Snagglepuss, the pink mountain lion on the Yogi Bear television show. Murgatroyd is a fairly common last name in Great Britain for both fictional characters and real people. What I have not been able to find out is why Betsy, or Murgatroyd, as opposed to “Heavens to Johnnie,” or “Heavens to Peterson.”

Other sayings that are familiar from my childhood have reappeared in my thoughts lately, such as someone looking like “two pigs fighting in a gunny sack,” or like “a wiener with a string tied around it.” I haven’t looked into those origins, however this has served to remind me what Dr. Gail Sheehy said in her important books about aging, “Passages and Pathfinders.” She wrote that people in their 70s move to the stage of “exploring the life of the mind, and of memory….doing mental embroidery on their fondest memories.”

That’s why I call it intruding into the present. I think that means I’m right on schedule, and there is comfort to be found in being predictable. Also, Spouse Roger won’t have to wonder any longer about Dixie cups.