It was back in the Sixties, during my Jolly Road commune days, a time when a passion for liberation from past ideals flamed across America. Woman’s Lib. Free love. The destruction of the nuclear family, and language, of course.
Cursing was cool, man. Cursing was hip. The word fuck, having always been taboo, quickly became a favorite swear word to bandy about because it showed how liberated your mouth had become. So there I was, a young long-haired hippie housewife shopping at a small country supermarket in Gardner, Mass. With three kids piled in my shopping cart and my grocery list in hand, I found myself in the meat department, depressed over the cost of chicken. The guy next to me wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and torn jean cutoffs was flicking his long ponytail back and forth in a nervous motion, obviously sharing my consternation at the rising cost of food.
“Damn! Look at the fucking price of those fucking chickens,” I grumbled. “How are you supposed to feed you fucking family when the fucking chicken people are charging such fucking high prices?”
I was of course expecting some affirmative reply, but the guy suddenly scooted away from me, heading for the dog food aisle. When I turned my head back to the meat department, I confronted a trio of old ladies. One of them still had her hand up to her mouth. The kind of grimace one might have if they’d just seen a chainsaw murderer loading up his fridge with body parts; the other two were gawking at my kids the way some people stare at the pictures of those pathetic souls in the Save the Children ads. Did I see tears glistening in their eyes?
I had grown so accustomed to using foul language around my peers, to see that as a badge of honor showing how liberated I was, that I felt jarred by the old ladies reactions. Taking in their horror of me, I wanted to apologize, but I felt too embarrassed, so I just smiled weakly. The kids were fussing, so I turned my attention to them instead, cooing and talking in perfectly appropriate, perfect-mother tones. On my way to the register, I resolved not to continue swearing, not even in private because in that moment it dawned on me that my loose, liberated vocabulary obviously was not going to endear me to any “straight” people, and the world was full of straight people, some I was even related to. I needed straight people. I loved them. Many were, after all, perfectly good folks.
Later in life when I morphed into a college English professor, I used to tell this story to my students, hoping it would help them understand the reason we academic types demanded they use proper English in their papers. When they wrote a good paper, my mind still said, “Far-fucking-out! Great paper!” but the editor I’d installed in my brain wouldn’t allow that to come out. Instead I’d simply gush, “Good job! Well-written. I’m very proud of you.”
Last week I read in the newspaper that some children’s author had been tossed off a plane for using foul language. Big headlines! Lots of head shaking and frowning. “What the fuck?” I thought. “Has the world really gotten that uptight?” Right after that I sighed, a big sigh of relief. “I’m so glad I don’t swear anymore.”
Carole A. Borges, author of Disciplining the Devil’s Country published by Alice James Books, was raised aboard a schooner on the Mississippi River in the 1950s. She learned the art of storytelling from the fishermen and river folk who lived along the banks, and also from the river itself—the stories it whispered and lessons it taught. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Bardsong, Soundings East, Kalliope and many others. Her essays and newspaper articles appear in a variety of magazines including City View, Eva, and Knox Voice. Nationally her work has appeared in The Change Agent, Pacific Yachting and Rudder Magazine. She currently lives in North Knoxville, Tenn. She spends most of her time playing with her two dogs or working in her garden.