My daughter is running around the house like a typical 2-year-old when I hear her trip and fall face first into our hardwood floors. I go to her immediately and can feel my arms stretching out to scoop her up. A wail escapes from her mouth, and she starts to cry.
I pull her little brown head to my shoulder. “Just put your keppie down,” I whisper to her. She nuzzles into my chest while I rub her back.
I lovingly refer to her head as keppie, the Yiddish word for “head” that my parents and grandparents always used.
The word keppie brings back images of comfort every time I hear it. It reminds me of my grandparents’ house in Quincy, right outside of Boston. They lived in a huge Tudor-style home with a turret that housed my grandmother’s vanity room and walk-in closet. The backyard had a raspberry patch tucked behind the tennis courts. My sisters and I spent vacations there as children: running through the huge house, learning tennis tips from my grandfather, and floating in the pool.
At night, my grandmother would tuck us in and softly sing us Yiddish lullabies.
“Put your keppie down,” she said each night.
No other phrase has ever soothed me the same way.
My mom used the word, too. If I said that I had a headache, she would ask me later if my keppie still hurt. It was more of an everyday word in my family growing up, but she sang the same Yiddish lullabies to me at night. Whenever the word keppie came out of her mouth, it would bring back memories of my grandparents’ house.
When my daughter was born, I found myself using keppie more and more in conversation. I instruct her to put her keppie down at bedtime, or when she is sick, and when I am carrying her in the rain.
She first started saying the word back to me when she learned her body parts. “Nose, ears, tummy, keppie,” she recited, pointing to each one. When she pretends to put her stuffed animals to sleep, I hear her softly whispering “keppie down” to each one of them. Sometimes when she is tired, she comes up to me, crawls into my lap, and simply asks to put her keppie on my shoulder.
There is something so powerful for me about using this word with my daughter. Of course, others know it — the word keppie does not belong to my family. But I imagine the phrase being passed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to me. I think about how the mothers of each generation murmured the same words to their children at night: “Put your keppie down.”
When I whisper the word into my daughter’s ear, I imagine my ancestors nodding in approval.
To me, “keppie down” means comfort and safety. It means close your eyes and have sweet dreams. It means love. It’s the best thing that I can say to my daughter before she goes to sleep. Each night when I tell her to put her keppie down, I envision that I am sending her love not only from me, but from my mom and grandmother as well.
I can’t think of any other words I would rather say to provide her with the comfort that I was so blessed to grow up with. By using keppie I not only offer unconditional love to my daughter, but also honor the most important women in my life. The power of a single word can be astonishing.