“Faye never swears but Gary, he’s got a goddamned foul mouth on him. Jesus Christ, he can hardly finish a sentence without swearing. I don’t know where he gets that from,” my Grandpa Kellogg used to say without a hint of irony.
I come from a long line of foul-mouthed people, most of whom come from my mother’s side of the family. I don’t know when I really became aware of the foul-mouth gene I’d inherited; perhaps it was when I was about six years old. I remember a weekly ritual of my mother unloading the groceries. We had an old Frigidaire (old even then) with a bottom-drawer freezer. Unfortunately, the freezer drawer would come off the tracks easily, rendering the whole contraption useless. My mother would have to drop the frozen foods she was lugging (a large quantity considering it was the 70s and most of what we ate was frozen) and struggle to put the heavy drawer back on its tracks. This never worked and her frustration level would escalate until finally she would get a hammer out of the kitchen drawer (kept there just for this purpose) and begin whaling on the thing saying, “Goddamnit, goddamnit, GODDAMNIT!”
That was my earliest memory of my mother swearing but certainly not my last. My mother was and is a classy lady who dresses well even when running errands. As I was growing up she wore pearls to bathe us and gloves and hats to church. She never smoked, seldom drinks and has no tattoos that I’m aware of. But here the dissimilarities between her and a longshoreman end. If you commit an egregious act upon her house like dripping candle wax on the shag carpet or spilling a particularly large quantity of milk on the dining room table and then wailing as you watch it slip away between the leaves, then be prepared to hear her utter a most unladylike string of curses.
Yes, I’d have to say I get the swearing mostly from my mother’s side of the family. Her father, the Grandpa Kellogg mentioned above, used the word “goddamned” as conversation filler. When he spoke, nearly every noun was preceded by the word goddamned: goddamned tractor, goddamned dog, goddamned Nancy (my aunt), and most especially goddamned Anne, my grandmother and his wife of 70 years. He seldom said any of this in anger; it was very matter of fact. He’d say, “I went to get the goddamned truck fixed and goddamned Anne went with me and ran some errands while I waited.” It’s quite possible his wedding vows were, “I Buell, take you, goddamned Anne, to be my lawfully wedded wife, goddamn it.”
Goddamned is, not surprisingly then, the swear word of choice for my mother, and I admit, in times of stress and provocation the one you’re most likely to hear from me.
My father on the other hand, seldom swears, though he too had a father who laced his conversation with profanity. I was only two when my Grandpa Zimmerman died so I have no memory of his foul language. My father tells a story though, that addresses the issue: Once, while my Grandpa was driving my father, who was about ten at the time, to the movies, Grandpa got annoyed with a slow driver in front of him who kept his blinker on but refused to turn. My grandfather pounded on the steering wheel and shouted, “Make up your mind you asshole!” to which my father meekly said, “The Main Street Theater, Dad.”
Even with all the swearing I’ve grown up with there are certain words my parents and grandparents never uttered. The “see-ya-next-Tuesday” word for one and the “f” word for another. That is why those words still have the power to shock and amuse me, especially if they come from unexpected places.
Val lives down the street from me. She is the mother of three, soon to be four, children. She is a dark-haired, Italian beauty who loves her children fiercely and has no patience with parents who shirk their familial duties. Before she became a mother she was a social worker at the high school and she has deep insights into the development of children and the importance of family, all of which she shares with me over coffee.
I chat with Val every morning as our children wait for the bus to come. This morning, we got to the bus stop before she did and as we waited, I could see the front door of her house open as she shepherded her kids into their boots and coats and mittens. Her very pregnant self was silhouetted against the morning sun and she made a lovely Madonna-like figure. I smiled at the sight. Then, I heard the rumbling of the bus as it started down the street and I heard her voice rise in panic as she screamed, “Hurry, HURRY UP! The FUCKING BUS IS COMING!” she screamed loudly enough for most of the street to hear. Nice.
Of course as parents, we of the foul-mouths have to be a little careful. Some parents frown on children who swear a lot. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been much of a problem around my house. Though my children hear me swear frequently and matter-of-factly every day of their lives, they are well aware they are not allowed to curse. I do have to remind them from time-to-time as I correct them. “No, you can’t say ‘shit’, you have to say ‘shoot’,” or “Mother-fucker isn’t nice but you can say, ‘son-of-a-gun’.”
My use of creative and colorful words has even morphed into a game the kids ask to play called, “Foul-Mouthed Polly Pockets.” If you are not familiar with Polly, let me enlighten you; she is a tiny, Barbie-wanna-be made out of plastic and her entire wardrobe is rubber. This is a bad combination. She is very tiny—minute even and it’s very difficult if not impossible to dress her. So though she is made for the “seven and under” set, there is not a single child who can actually dress her without a lot of adult help. As a parent, if you have Polly in the house, eventually you will find yourself struggling with a tiny rubber mini-skirt the size of a postage-stamp and tiny rubber boots no bigger than a paper-clip as you dress Polly, who like all other little girl dolls dresses like a Vegas hooker.
When this happens to me, I will invariably find myself providing an imaginary monologue from Polly that usually goes like this: “I can’t wait to go out on my date tonight, as soon as I get these goddamned pants on. Now who the hell would invent rubber pants when I’m made out of plastic? The only thing worse would be if they made my ass out of Velcro and my pants out of flannel,” which I say in a wee-little Polly voice. This slays my six-year old who begs for more. I suppose there are those who wouldn’t really approve of this kind of parenting. Fuck em’.
I recently read that Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is rather well known for her salty language. If one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century swears a lot; surely I can toss off a curse word now and then without it reflecting too badly on me. In fact, the next time someone tells me that “swearing is the sign of a limited vocabulary” I’m going to point out this fact about Harper Lee. It’s much better than my usual witty rejoinder of, “Bullshit.” And if they don’t like that, they can take it up with my goddamned mother.
By Judy Zimmerman