© 2014 Donna Hébert. All rights reserved. Published 2016 in the anthology Heliotrope: French-American Women Create, ed. Rhea Coté Robbins
My French-Canadian Nana used Fels Naptha bar soap (with lye in it) to wash out our mouths if we said a bad word, so I didn’t swear around adults, even though most of them swore liberally. These second-generation immigrants were, however, self-conscious about their accents and tried to bury their cultural differences, the cost of admittance into the American middle class in the 1950s.
My own speech and world view had, of course, matured by the time I began raising a daughter in my forties. Values were different and school protocols had certainly changed. At no time during my school days had we sat on the floor or taken our naps lying next to each other. No pillows, no cubbies, no shared quad tables, just a hook for our coat. Indeed, we sat all day at our own desks and put our heads down on same, pretending to rest. Nor were our school floors carpeted. Do you get where I’m going?
When my own lovely daughter entered public school, her blonde curls hung more than halfway down her back. She loved them and so did I. Perfect hair. I had, somehow, in spite of overwhelming genetic improbability, produced a child with perfect hair. My own stringy locks echoed those of my soap-wielding Nana, whose lifelong dissatisfaction with her hair was well-known. She took to wearing polyester wigs when they became fashionable in the ‘70s, even though Papa threatened to use them for target practice! Thing is, all her bingo biddies knew about her hair woes. When she died, they took Polaroid pictures of her in the undertaker’s hair and makeup and put them in the coffin so she could see how good she finally looked!
So now my innocent, ringleted darling entered kindergarten, all bright and shiny in the new rainbow-print dress I’d made for her. Within two weeks, her scalp was itchy and we were in quarantine, sitting in the bright sun on the front stoop with a lice comb. Eeeeeeuuuwwww! Indeed, her head (and my skin) were crawling. Multiple applications of lice-killing shampoo for all family members ensued. I even bought a new vacuum cleaner after we used the old one to clean every surface in the house and then tossed it in the trash lest it re-infest the premises. We did everything, including keeping her out of school until she passed the school nurse’s high-magnification head exam.
Back into class she went. This time it was maybe three weeks before her scalp began itching. Somebody else’s mom hadn’t thrown their damn vacuum out, I fumed. Then I realized: the kids sit next to each other, clothing hanging together, lying on the carpeted floor together. This was a losing battle. So I took my heart and scissors in hand and cut her beautiful long blond ringlets to about shoulder length. This gave the little bastards half as much territory to infest and cut my nit-picking time considerably.
By now, the poor kid felt she should wear an “UNCLEAN” label around her neck so no one would touch her. Of course, she mourned her hair. So did I. For that matter, Nana probably did too, from her French-Canadian bingo-playing heaven. It was at this point that I briefly entertained the thought of getting the instruments out of the house, along with the books, animals, and of course, the humans, and just tossing in a lit Molotov cocktail.
Finally, it looked as if we were clean again. My car was not running well, so I’d rented one for the band to drive to Canada for a gig (with daughter in tow). We’d just crossed into Quebec when that daughter started crying in the back seat. We stopped, took a good look, and indeed, she was re-infested. Maternal overdrive took over. Next stop was the drugstore, then our hotel, all the time gibbering to myself: ”Jesus God how do we keep from infesting the hotel, never mind this car – and each other?”
We arrived at the hotel, stripped down to underwear, piling the goo on our heads. The bathroom was huge, mirrored on all sides, creating surreal images as my girl stomped around the room, fizzing with frustration. She finally sputtered:
Mummy, can I say a bad word?”
Oh, honey, this is exactly why people say them! You go right ahead.”
What else could I say? She tore around the bathroom, goo oozing down her neck, stomping with rage while rolling out some very impressive curses for an almost-six year old. I joined her in mid-stomp, releasing my own frustration at having to deal with this again (in the middle of a performance weekend, just for laughs).
Our impromptu ‘curse-you-lice’ dance ended when we were both laughing so hard we could no longer breathe. Then we washed the goo off and prayed we’d gotten them all (this time we had, but we didn’t know that yet), and put on a big smile for the nice people for the rest of the weekend. Ask me where she became the road warrior she is today. In a hotel bathroom, in Valleyfield, Quebec, cursing like a longshoreman, when she was five.
As we toweled off, I reminded her that:
This was a special time to use those words. If you talk like that in front of your little friends, their mommies won’t like it and they won’t let you play with them, so be careful. When you are an adult, you can decide how to talk, but for now, adults will judge you if you curse.”
She never had a problem with that injunction. With an inborn sense of drama, she knows how and when to color her language. She’s played many Shakespearean roles, both male and female parts, and possesses a honed and literate collection of curses. However, when she works as a nanny, she stows that gab and even corrects MY language if I’m sloppy around her charges. She takes her job seriously. But after hours, hanging out with friends at a bar, she un-censors herself.
She also has a strong sense of who she is in the world and isn’t shy. At age eight, she declared to a friend at a house party, “Oh, but we’re not poor. We’re bohemian!” I backed out of the room, shaking with laughter. She got it, even then, that the artist’s life is a choice that would look like different things to different people, depending on their own world view. And she grew up talking to academics, actors, musicians, scientists, and thinkers, so she’s had no doubt of her own worth from early on.
But while she can take her own space, some would deny her that freedom based on her gender. Some self-important nasties freely police and shame female strangers in public places like restaurants. She recently posted the following status on her Facebook profile:
I just got told by a man at a restaurant that my language was “atrocious for a woman and you shouldn’t speak like that.” I was speaking no differently than my male friends. I told him to fuck off and that he had no right to tell me or any other woman how to speak. Because I’m a fucking lady, dickwad. #yesallwomen”
Good job. You sliced and diced the most deserving douchebag of the day, shaming him properly rather than accepting his shaming of you. He, of course, walked away thinking he was absolutely right and that you were a barbarian bitch. [Ooo – band name?] You weren’t ever going to be anything other than an example to him, anyway.
But follow this experience to its proper conclusion. The mere existence of guys like him is why women need to VOTE. That’s the takeaway here.
I also offer another little gem for your colorful collection:
May lightning strike your zipper!!”
© 2014 Donna Hébert. All rights reserved.