My dad said the usual classic cuss words: damn, hell, and shit. When my mama used them--usually for some kitchen calamity--she whispered them or just said the first part of the word: shhhhhhhhh! It had been clear to us since we learned to talk that those were grown-up words and we weren't allowed to use them.
Sister never said bad words. She was afraid of anything that powerful. I loved them.
But our parents used a lot of words that weren't quite polite, and they didn't alert us to that fact. Piss, pee, bitch, and pecker were pretty regularly used, and no one batted an eye. So who was to know that some people frowned on it?
I was ten and a half when Mama went to the hospital to deliver Second Sister. Our aunt Hootie stayed with us at our house. Dad worked second shift, 3 to 11 p.m., and after he left for work, Aunt Hootie made us some dinner and agreed to play a game. We chose Scrabble, which was always fun at our house because my parents knew so many more words than we did, and they made some up too.
The game was moving along fine until about my sister's third turn. She already had her word ready, and she was excited to put her four letters on the board. Snick snick snick snick went the tiles as she snapped them down like Mama did. B-I-C-H.
"Bitch," she said. She sat back and sighed. We always said the word after we'd put it down. It was part of the pleasure of the game.
Instead of scoring the word, Aunt Hootie grew pink and a lot larger. It seemed as if the breath she was inhaling was going to suck in the whole room including the curtains. She grabbed the board and dumped the tiles into the box. "The game is over," she told us. "If you're going to use words like that."
We looked at each other. WTF? Bitch is a bad word? My dad said it daily. In our house, it was a verb that meant the same thing as "complain." We tried not to roll our eyes at each other, because grown-ups had no tolerance for that.
Sister burst out crying.
"Time for bed," Aunt Hootie said. She flapped her hands at us. "Go on."
We started shuffling toward the staircase as if we were disappointed, even though we loved being sent to our rooms; Mama never did that. If you got in trouble with her, she'd give you a shitty chore.
As we started up the stairs, Aunt Hootie called, "You didn't even spell it right!"
I could always make Mama laugh with that story later. I probably still could. Are you laughing, Mama?
The word fuck never entered our house. I heard it at school. And the meaning? I knew that it meant the same as doing it, but exactly what doing it entailed was a mystery. I never used it until I went to college and learned how to smoke and write poetry and be cool.
Fuck is like a grenade for a short red-haired woman. I keep one in my pocket.
Saying the word to Mama would have been as bad as saying it to the preacher. It would have never entered my mind to ask her about it. Kids have an unexplained sense about what you must never ask adults. But I said it in front of her one time.
After I was grown, I was driving in downtown Mattoon when a car cut right in front of me, forcing me to stand on the brakes. "Oh, fuck!" I shouted as Mama grabbed the dash with both hands and braced herself.
No crash. My heart was beating hard enough that I could hear it in my ears. We both let out a big sigh.
"Oh, Mama, I'm sorry," I said.
"That's okay," she answered. "I was thinking the same thing!"
P.S. If you're into random acts of kindness, as I am, check out the new button at the top left. It starts with us.
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