Use a bar of soap to make something new.
I’m going to bend the rules again. Rather than using soap to make something new, I’m going to use it to share two memories. Memories that are about 40 years old.
* * *
As far as I knew, my parents were as straitlaced as they come. I never heard my mother utter any word more offensive than “fiddlesticks,” and the worst word I ever heard my father say was “dang-it.” (Long past our father’s death, my brother broke it to me that our dad could string together impressive strands of profanities when livestock and other challenges of farm life tested his patience. But I never heard that. I distinctly remember “dang-it” from the Saturday evening he shut a filing cabinet drawer on his finger. I was shocked. Mom shuffled me off to get ready for bed, so Daddy could come down from his massive “rage.”)
Needless to say, I was not familiar with naughty words.
So imagine Mom’s surprise when, during the summer before I started kindergarten, I asked, “Mommy, what does f*ck mean?”
Mom turned off the electric stove burners, turned away from our dinner-in-progress, glared into my face, and demanded, “Where did you hear that word?”
Utterly unaware of the implications, I ratted out two or three of my cousins. I was still finishing my story of the day’s events as Mom snatched up her purse, grabbed my wrist, and yanked me into the Buick so we could head into town. When we reached our destination, she pushed me up the green-painted cement steps to the side door, and she rang the bell.
My cousins’ mom, who was also my day-to-day babysitter, answered the door with happy surprise. And then we smashed her positivity to bits.
“Ask her about that word,” my mom insisted.
God, I was stupid. I still had no idea what I had said that was so wrong. I looked at Mom, then I looked at Ruth, and then I raised my honest question once again.
“I just wanted to know what f*ck means,” I said.
Ruth’s face turned white, then red, and then the screen door slammed shut as she turned to holler at whichever of her six kids happened to be nearby. I don’t know who got in trouble that day, but I’m fairly certain at least a couple of them had their mouths washed out with soap.
The punishment did not stop my cousins from continuing my education. The next day, I learned what f*ck means. Though I could hardly believe their explanation then, I can say with certainty now that my cousins knew precisely what f*ck means.
* * *
Flash forward a few weeks.
As a new kindergartener, I was learning new things and meeting new people. I was dealing with situations and people—and names—I had never encountered before.
So, reporting on my day’s experiences once again, I innocently repeated something I had heard at school.
“Some people say that Mark Erdman sounds like Mark Turd-Man.”
I don’t even remember Mom stopping to turn off the burners this time. Before I knew what hit me, she was jerking my arm out of the socket, pulling me from kitchen through dining room down hallway into bathroom. And a smooth bar of Zest was headed for my mouth.
I struggled to get away, but pulling against her grasp was no use. I cried and screamed as loudly as I could, with a bar of soap thrust deep in my mouth. But who could hear? Daddy was still out in the fields, and no one else was home. Limp and lost—and really clueless—I just waited for it to end.
Eventually, she must have decided my sin was washed clean. She put the soap back onto the porcelain, and I gagged and sputtered suds into the sink. She stepped back, hands on hips, while I cupped my hands to gather and guzzle water from the faucet, trying like mad to eliminate the film and taste from my tongue.
Obviously, I had said another bad word. What on earth does “turd” mean, I wondered. I certainly wasn’t going to get the answer from Mom. I don’t think she said another word to me all night.
No matter. “I’ll just ask my cousins,” I thought.