by Jessica Van den Ancker
Despite feeling like a socially inept twelve-year-old girl who still wishes she were a flying horse or a superhuman able to telekinetically melt someone’s face off, at age forty, I’ve recently noticed an awe-inspiring phenomenon—latent memories. Whether sparked by a conversation, song lyrics, or some other means, realizations about my childhood and its impact on the person I’ve become have recently surged into my consciousness at warp speed.
The latest instance occurred while my mom was visiting. She and I ventured out for a stroll around the neighborhood, and when we returned, my husband was playing a video game. Within five minutes of our return, we bore witness to a flurry of F-words flying from his mouth as if he were in the throes of a Tourette’s attack. When he realized my mom was present, he apologized. I cringed, head swiveling from my husband to my mom to survey the damage, but she was smiling. Peculiar.
Dinner was next on the agenda, so Mom and I exited to clean up. Readying herself more quickly than I, she was watching my husband fly helicopters around San Andreas when I entered the family room. As we waited for him to finish the game, the word oozed from my husband’s mouth as if he’d been infected by some intellect-draining disease that narrowed the breadth of his vocabulary down to the mother of all curse words. I looked to Mom. Nothing. No shock, no awe. I didn’t know whether to be worried or relieved.
The following day, we had lunch reservations at a popular gastropub. On our way to the restaurant, a car darted in front of us, and yet another “f***” fell from my husband’s mouth. Approaching record-breaking F-word-around-the-parents territory, he apologized once again. My mom promptly advised that he had been piloting the F-bomber for the past few days. My heart pounded so hard that it took my breath away, and a sweat mustache formed on my upper lip. Then, my mom relayed a story about her language on the tennis court. Apparently, when things got hairy, she referred to on-court happenings as “cluster-fucks.” She chuckled about some of her teammates’ distaste regarding her naughty courtside language.
And then it hit me. I was aware of my mom not only as my mother, but also as a person. No longer was she the perfect lady I had placed upon an idealistic pedestal. She was real. A person. A woman in her own right.
And in this moment, a lifetime of events unfolded. Suddenly, I remembered a school bus carving its way through an April deluge, eager to dump a load of elementary-aged monsters at Buckeye Lake Estates. The benign rolling bumblebee lurched to a stop in front of the mobile home office, a faded mustard- and eggshell-colored double-wide propped atop a series of tallish concrete supports straddling a small creek. With a metal-on-metal hiss, the bus door opened, and kids reluctantly poured out. A second grader, I was one of those kids, and I scurried after a few classmates aiming for the relative shelter beneath the office building, the place where my relationship with cursing began.
The ground below the office was V-shaped, with steep banks on either side of the stream. Rain swelled the creek, and the thirsty creek bed gulped the excess water, morphing chapped dirt into a squishy quagmire perfect for crafting mud pies. I don’t remember exactly how it started—by shoving match or by balance incident—but one of my friends ended up butt-side-down in the mud. Based on my friend’s temperament, I don’t think this action alone would’ve angered him enough to expel a flurry of expletives; however, his Trapper Keeper launched into the air, pierced the mud like an arrow, and sunk several inches into the muck.
He suctioned himself out of the mud and rushed to the Trapper Keeper. I watched in horror as he dislodged the ruined folder holder, red Lamborghini spattered and marred. And that was it. Suddenly, he was Bruce Banner transformed into the Hulk of expletives, obscenities spewing from his mouth as if he were possessed by a demon. This was the first time my tender ears heard “fuck.”
From that day forward, my friends and I, desperate to grow up, met for thirty-minute after-school cursing sessions underneath the office building. It took a few weeks, but I eventually mustered enough courage to utter the mother word. I had no idea what it meant, but as soon as the word left my mouth, a wave of guilt crashed over me. The overwhelming feeling of wrongness was so strong, I avoided the space beneath the office as if my mother had bugged it, and I stopped cursing altogether.
You see, “fuck” had never been uttered at my house (at least not in my presence). In fact, before my friend’s Trapper Keeper free-for-all, the worst expletive I’d heard was “shit,” which, of course, I found hilarious—partly because it was reserved for when someone did something stupid or clumsy, and partly because I had a grandma who had a propensity for saying, “Well, shit!”
When I was nine, my mom married a retired Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army. The swearword frequency at our household increased nearly threefold, from roughly two words per week to a whopping six (except for the teen phase when every other word from my big sister’s mouth was “dick”). However, the F-bomb eluded the obscenities rotation, thus solidifying its taboo status.
It was high school before I resumed my foray into cursing. However, the mother of all curses dodged my vocabulary until 1994, when I married a squid and moved to Norfolk, Virginia. After my marital indoctrination into the curses-like-a-sailor club, it became downright unnatural not to use “fuck” in a sentence. Twenty-plus years later, a friendship—forged from the metal of girl solidarity—and my potty mouth were the sole survivors from my time in Virginia.
Nearly fifteen years ago, I married my soul mate, a man who does not equate my cursing to a limited vocabulary or intellect. Over the years, he and my stepdad became quite close. A history buff, my husband loved hearing about my stepdad’s exploits in Korea and Vietnam—stories from which my sister and I were sheltered, just as we were sheltered from “fuck.”
By this time, my parents had still only sworn when conversationally or circumstantially appropriate. Needless to say, the fact that my parents hadn’t uttered a single “fuck” in front of me made me return the favor.
When melanoma stole my stepdad in 2009, my family was devastated. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I were reminiscing about my stepdad. Despite the obvious, I was shocked to learn my stepdad’s colorful war stories had also been peppered with colorful language, festooned with F-bombs. And although I had witnessed over twenty years of my stepdad pampering my mom and sheltering us girls from gritty war stories, the fact that he restrained his language around us, aside from a few “shits” and “assholes,” cemented one thing in my mind: My stepdad was not only a true gentleman, but he was the ultimate gentleman. Somehow, the absence of “fuck” in my life birthed this revelation.
Perhaps I’m placing too much importance on just one word; however, “fuck” has provided more insight into my parents as people than I ever could’ve gleaned on my own. In essence, the absence and resurgence of “F” has changed my life.
BIO: Jessica Van den Ancker’s work has been featured in Black Heart Magazine, The Penman Review, and moonShine review. Her writings “in the voice of” series characters for Colaborator.com’s original web series, MATCH, can be found on the interactive pages of match.colaborator.com. When she’s not working, she enjoys devouring books and movies and clowning around with friends and family.