I grew up in a cursing family. In Edgecombe County, some families were not. The Langleys next door were not a cursing family. No four-letter words tainted the ears of Keggy, Jimmy, or Jane Langley unless Daddy visited, which he was not often encouraged to do.
Cursing lubricated Daddy’s sentences. It flowed eloquently from him. Damn and goddamn and hell were acceptable. Goddamn was often used for high compliments. At the supper table Daddy would say, “Bea, this is the best goddamned meal I’ve ever eaten. You can’t buy food like this.” He also attached it to possessions and people of whom he felt proud. “That goddamn daughter of mine can do anything she sets her mind to,” he’d say.
But there were curses that were unacceptable. Shit was considered low-class and vulgar, and Daddy only occasionally used it with his men friends. They used it to punctuate, to end conversations. “S-h-i-i-i-t,” Daddy would say, trailing the word out long and low, and John Bottoms would match it with his own extended version, “S-h-i-i-t.” A short silence would follow, the men gazing softly over the fields, which meant that there was nothing more to be said about the current topic. Then their eyes would refocus on each other, and a new topic could be brought fresh into the circle.
Mama followed a different set of rules, with a more economical repertoire. She used damn and hell, that was nearly all. She never said shit and only whispered bitch on rare occasions, bringing her hand up beside her mouth to shade the word and limit her audience. Then she’d shrug her shoulders and wink, tickled by her brief lapse in protocol.
I learned the power of forbidden curses in college. With one word I could rebel, become unladylike, unsweet, un-my mama and daddy, unBaptist, unSouthern, unEdgecombe County. The word was fuck, an ugly, clicking sound that promised liberation. It held more power than cigarette smoking, more than dirty jeans: fuck.
My mama gasped and turned ashen the first time she heard me say it. Her eyes teared. “I’ve only seen that word on bathroom walls. I’ve never heard it spoken out loud before.” She went to her bedroom and quietly shut the door. After that, my parents had the good sense not to respond overtly to my new vocabulary. They suppressed their natural gasp reflex for a while. But a few days later, Mama crisply announced, after I let fly another twenty unspeakables, “I do not like that word and I would appreciate it if you would not use it in our home.” Mama understood the power of the word, the strength of my rebellion. I had separated from them. She and Daddy stood in union, protecting their home.
My occasional power-packed fuck you evolved into frequent and more mundane fucking school and fucking term papers and fucking dinner and fucking shoes. It soon was diluted to any-word status.
I never returned to Edgecombe County to live after college. At twenty, I thought myself too creative, too sophisticated. I moved away to live among strangers. Liberals. Cappuccino drinkers. Recyclers. People who don’t think you have to be crazy to see a therapist. No one thinks me odd, no one criticizes my yard work, and no one watches to see who comes to my house or what time I wake up and get dressed in the mornings; but no one brings over fried chicken when I’m sick or when someone dies. Last week my neighbor Frank died. I had helped him plant his petunias in early summer, but no one came over to tell me when he died. Now I return to North Carolina as often as possible and ache at all I sacrificed, and all that has passed in Edgecombe County without me.
My parents, long accustomed to life without me, have developed a routine and a delicate family ecosystem that is interrupted by my visits. Daddy, sensing the imbalance caused by my presence, gets ornery and, according to Mama, “has ugly spells.” Two years ago, as Mama and I were in the den reading, Daddy yelled from the utility room, “Who’s been in my tackle box?” as if Mama and I had sneaked out there to look at his chartreuse rubber worms with hooks sticking out their bottoms. “I can’t find my favorite jitterbug. How the hell can I bass-fish without my goddamn jitterbug? A wonder anyone finds a thing out here.”
Mama sighed and, without looking up from her book, said, “A spell. He’s going to have a spell.”
He expanded his aggravated attention to the entire utility room, grinding grit and cement together as he dragged reluctant boxes across the floor. Shit was muttered frequently, not long and drawn-out, but crisp and clipped for Mama’s benefit. The gritty scraping grew louder. “Why the hell does Bea have to keep so many suitcases? We don’t go anywhere. Bea, I’m gonna throw out some of these old suitcases.”
Mama focused her attention on her novel, maintaining tense composure, determined not to be drawn into Daddy’s spell. “H.L.,” she called out, “stop acting ugly.”
Dissatisfied with our noninvolvement, Daddy appeared at the back door of the den. “Which suitcases do you want me to throw away?”
“None, H.L.,” Mama said coldly.
“Well, I’m going to clean out the goddamn utility room. Somebody’s got to. Can’t find a thing in there. Filled with worthlessness.” He left two suitcases in the open doorway: bait. Mama wavered, but stiffly returned her focus to her novel.
He hollered impossible questions from the utility room. “What’s in this old garment bag?”
“I don’t know, H.L.”
“Shit. Y’all don’t care. No wonder this place is a sty.”
Daddy appeared at the door several times, something new in his hands each time — a garment bag, a box of Christmas decorations, a badminton set — each time asking, “Do y’all want me to throw these away?”
“Shit,” he repeated, the word losing power even in its new crispness, “I’m goin’ to.” He dropped each item in the open doorway. His empty threats piled up there, strewn across the floor, only steps away.
There was quiet in the utility room. I thought the spell might have passed when I heard the icy vacuum of the freezer door opening — his last card. Mama tensed as Daddy shuffled through the stacks of freezer bags. “What are we having for dinner, Bea?”
“It’s already thawing, H.L.”
The sound of ice against ice chilled my back and made my fanny tight as Daddy explored the freezer. “What the hell is this?” he asked. “Shit, Bea, I can’t tell one thing from another.”
Mama couldn’t ignore this. She climbed through the pile at the doorway and stood over Daddy, who was squatting at the open freezer door. “H.L., I don’t want you in my freezer.”
He continued, agitated, “Can’t tell butter beans from doves.”
She grabbed the two bags from him. “That’s field peas and quail.” Mama tried to shut the freezer door with Daddy in it. “Stop it, H.L.”
“What the hell is this, Bea?” He pushed a chilly package toward her.
“That’s okra, H.L., now get out.”
“How the hell do you know how old these packages are? We could get botulism or something from eatin’ old frozen food. What’s the matter with you?”
“H.L., the food is perfectly safe if you’ll leave it alone. I know where everything is.”
He ignored her, pulling out more frosty packages — our personal FDA inspector. Daddy began stacking lumpy freezer bags on the floor. “Mavis Johnson got sick from some venison the Underhills gave her. Hell, that family probably hasn’t cleaned out their freezer in ten years.” Mama was restacking Daddy’s floor pile on the top shelf. Daddy held up a tupperware container with faded magic marker on the side. “What the hell is this? How the hell can you read that?”
Mama held the container at arm’s length. “That’s shad roe, H.L. Shad roe from this spring.”
“How do you know that, Bea? Who the hell knows what somebody might get from eating old shad roe?”
Mama pushed Daddy aside, threw the remaining parcels in the freezer, slammed the door, and pressed her back against it. Her breath was quick and her lips pressed tight. “Henry Leonard, get away from my freezer or I will be tempted to slap you. I am not a nasty woman, but you are a hateful and horrible man.”
Insulted, Daddy returned to the den, kicking noisily through badminton rackets and suitcases, and sat in a small, overstuffed guest chair facing the blank television screen. Mama followed and perched on the couch behind him as if it were a hard church pew. I sat in Daddy’s Barcalounger, an honored witness, impressed that I had avoided being drawn into this spell. The three of us faced the blank screen, a tense triangle.
“S-h-i-i-t-t,” Daddy drawled in final disgust.
But Mama wasn’t done. She inched to the very edge of her pew, knees pressed together tightly, feet tucked formally underneath. She straightened her back and sucked in a short breath. She caught the breath, trapped it in her pursed lips, and rounded her back. She straightened again and gasped, then rounded again, building and wavering, pumping for strength. Finally her back remained erect and her lips parted, a white-haired choir girl awaiting her cue. She enunciated slowly and clearly, “FOCK YOU, H.L.”
Silence. Mama, frozen, perched on her seat, stunned by the echo of her own unspeakable words. Daddy turned to look at her. He stared a moment, perfectly still. “Have you lost your mind, Bea?”
Mama slowly relaxed, slumped back on the couch, dropping her head. Her shoulders began to shake. She had dissolved in self-appreciative laughter, vibrating with pride and irony. Years of taboo had been shed in seconds. The unspeakable, spoken, was liberation. I joined the laughter. Daddy followed. I wanted to jump on the chairs, raise my fists and chant, “Power to my mama!” One of us would calm our spasms only to look into the joyfully contorted, tear-stained face of another, and the laughter would begin anew.
I’ve not heard Mama use the word since. Unlike her daughter, she hasn’t diluted its power with indiscriminate use. She guards her secret weapon.