To my mother, a first grade teacher for 30 years, every day was an opportunity to make a difference in the life of some squirmy, rag tag, grubby little six-year-old. And cussing, therefore, was out of the question.
Other than an occasional cathartic “Damn!” (considered quite proper in her home state of Kentucky) my mother rarely uttered a legitimate swear word. When frustrated, she would sometimes begin to form the “sh” sound, but just as we thought she was about to emit a well-known expletive, the word would morph into “SHHugar!” or “SHHoot!” or a long string of biblical characters such as “SHHadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!”
Although she flirted with minor cuss words, there was one word that would never, and I mean never, pass over my mother’s tangerine tinted lips: The “F-word.”
Nowadays the F-word has, like other formerly risqué endeavors such as tattoos and visible bra straps, become rather commonplace. It’s all over the premium channels, movie screens, Internet, radios and workplaces. Modern society has become de-sensitized to swearing over the last couple of decades, but back in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid, the F-word was considered taboo.
As far as my mother was concerned, the F-word was not an appropriate form of verbal communication. Whatever emotional cleansing or free expression might be gleaned from blurting that particular cuss word was outweighed by one’s ethical obligation to civilization.
Having grown up under my mother’s influence, I never really took to cussing either.
“Pardon my French,” a woman in my writer’s group whispered to me last week after she’d told a particularly expressive story punctuated by the F-word. In my writers’ group, everyone but me swears regularly, but there was no need for her to apologize. I get it. To many people in our modern world, cuss words effectively communicate a particular level of anger, annoyance, surprise or frustration. These words flow naturally from their lips and pens as a form of free expression.
However, when I swear, it comes out as immature as a 7th grader on the middle school bus, despite the fact that I’m 49 years old. It’s not that I’ve lived a sheltered life; I am the wife of a Navy man after all (many cuss words have nautical origins, you know) and have worked in offices where the F-word was casually batted about by both men and women like whiffle balls. I’ve often felt pressured to use the F-word to fit in, but I’ve never been able to make it work for me.
I must admit, there have been times when I’ve really wanted to blurt out something foul — on the highway, during arguments with my husband, or when trying to get the cap off of a bottle of ibuprofen when I’m particularly hormonal — and wished there was an effective alternative to blurting the F-word.
Even my mother once sought her own alternative to the F-word.
It was 1979, and I was watching my parents argue at our kitchen table. Nothing heated, just a garden-variety marital disagreement. While I sat spreading peanut butter on saltines, my mother gave up arguing, expelled a heavy sigh, and went back to silently scribbling in her sketchbook.
My father got the final word, but my mother didn’t seem bothered. She calmly finished her drawing, got up, and excused herself from the room, leaving her sketchpad propped on the napkin caddy.
Back then, we all knew my mother would never say the F-word, much less make the infamous symbolic hand gesture for it. But, on this particular day, she found a way to express her feelings without compromising her ethical standards. There on her sketchpad, for all the world to see, was a perfect replica of a human hand — skin, knuckles, fingernails and all — flipping my father “The Bird.”
That day, I learned a few things from my mother’s unique example. That there are always alternatives to swearing. That I should weigh my options before letting any expletives fly. And that, if there’s is a way to swear with class, my mother had definitely put her finger on it.