Reason #3: I know what I’m going to say when Charlie encounters foul language.
My sister Mary Claire and I were about 9 and 7 when we had our first brush with profanity. We were on the school bus, just doors from our stop, when a mean-looking girl barred the center aisle. She was probably a perfectly normal child in a Catholic school uniform, but in my imagination, she wears a leather jacket and has a cigarette dangling from her lip.* She has a lumpy scar on her right cheek, a faint German accent and greasy, unwashed hair. She smells of B.O. and she is 10.
Standing in the aisle, the German stared down her nose at my sister and, as if she’d had years of practice, said, “Bitch.”
Mary Claire and I were rooted to the floor. My stomach lurched and I wondered what circumstances would give a pass to a second-grader for wetting her pants. Then, as quickly as she had materialized, the German was gone, and Mary Claire and I rocketed off the bus and up our driveway.
I don’t know who had enough bravery to broach the topic with my mom. Probably Mary Claire. With a strong tendency toward brooding in silence, I typically left most of the up-front communication responsibilities to my older sister. In any case, somehow my mother learned that we had heard – nay, we had been called – a bad word.
Here’s the part I remember with utmost clarity. My mom put one arm around each of us and reiterated that “bitch” was not a word we used in our family. We nodded solemnly. “It’s not a nice thing to call someone, and it shows that the girl on the bus has a small mind and a small vocabulary.” This was new. My mother went on: “When people swear, often it means that they don’t know any better words to use. For example, would you rather that word went around school that you were a bitch, or that you were a dirty pig who never bathed?”
A dirty pig who never bathed? The horrors! Mary Claire and I confirmed that the pig thing was much, much worse.
My mom summed up, “So when people use swear words, we know that it’s not only impolite, it also shows that they’re not very creative.”
I took that lesson to heart. In about fourth grade, I made waves during recess for calling a bully a snot-sucking bottom feeder. In eighth grade, I got in huge trouble when a note I had written to my friend Roberta was intercepted, disclosing—with pictorial representation—that I thought one of our teachers was a crusty-skinned, crooked-fingered fish-woman whose face was made of Play-doh. Throughout my professional life, though I never dared say them aloud, I found tremendous satisfaction in cooking up colorful epithets for imaginary use against workplace nemeses. When I left one job, I was sent an exit interview survey to fill out, in which I finally got to refer to a coworker as a toxic weasel who had destabilized the department by digging a network of fetid tunnels into its foundation.
Thanks to my mother, I now know that not using swear words isn’t a restriction. It’s liberation! Think of all the things you can call that large-pored Norma Desmond in your yoga class who always takes the good spot in the corner. Or your fleshy, girlish male co-worker whose midlife crisis tattoos make you vomit a little bit in your mouth. Or how about the washed-up beauty queen with the visible underwear lines and 1992 bangs who stole your parking spot? Just try it! Once you get on a roll, there’s no end to the nasty things you can come up with, all far more insulting than “bitch.”
That mom of mine. She really set a good example.
* I am renowned in my family for my Swiss cheese memory. Mostly, I remember pieces of things and then fill in the holes according to what Anne of Green Gables or Nancy Drew would have done. It makes for a colorful set of remembrances, but I often tell a story and then hear, “Meg, that’s not what happened at all. It was your arm that was eaten off by the bear, not your leg.” Point being, you can trust the major points in my stories to be true to the spirit of the occasion, but if you think the details should have gone another way, they probably did. I bet Mary Claire tells this story a lot differently.