It was a fine fall day. I remember that because we held our breath as we walked past the pit silo, halfway through that last quarter mile to my house. There’s nothing like the pungency of rotting corn stalks to teach you how to speedwalk without breathing. But it was the interrupted conversation that I was really focusing on. Josephine was telling Judy a joke. At least they were calling it a joke, though it had no narration or punch line. Then they rolled their eyes and smirked at my request for an explanation. While we weren’t in the same class, I was the same age as Judy, who was walking home after school for a visit with her older friend, but they obviously considered me way too ignorant and naïve to be included. No cars had passed as we walked on the side of the road; still they made a group of two with me trailing along a step behind.
“Don’t ask your dad, he’ll just laugh at you.” they tossed over their shoulders, giggling, before they went on to another topic. I immediately bristled. My daddy wouldn’t laugh at me. I was sure of it. I said no more and soon crossed the road and hopped the ditch heading around the house for my back door while they went on down the road. I was forming a plan, a mission with one goal; to prove those girls wrong. And so I waited, until my father got home, until supper was done, until the cows were milked and the chores almost done, when I began to stalk him, looking for that moment we would be alone. Finally, it was just him and me in the kitchen. I told him the joke and asked for an explanation.
I have no idea what he said. My wide open eyes were busy searching his posture, his gestures, and most of all, his face. He never once smiled, smirked, rolled his eyes or laughed and I walked away still uneducated but triumphant, sorry for girls who couldn’t ask their daddies questions and with a stirring of contempt for daddies who laughed at their daughters.
Maybe my parents were team teaching me again. Probably; I can’t say because my memory doesn’t tell me when my mother told me this story. I only know that I listened with interest because she didn’t tell childhood stories very often. They were sitting at the top of the stairs where no one could hear them, she said, she and her brother. She was six and he was five, so it would have been right at 1920. First she leaned toward him and whispered “Pee-pee.” Then they laughed! Then he leaned forward and said “Pee-pee.” And they laughed! It wasn’t really funny you know, she told me; they were laughing because it was dirty, and saying something dirty was naughty and exciting.
I am sure it is the current rash of public potty mouth that has dragged these two memories up from their sixty years deep well, and why goodness gracious me, I’m finding that while public conventions and practices change, the truth hasn’t changed at all. A laughable joke still requires a story with a punch line that does no harm, and no matter what their age, those who are childish and immature still huddle together at the top of the stairs, saying dirty words to each other and laughing with excitement, certain that only big people get to talk like that.
And so now I have to wonder, is it possible that the passing years have softened some of my rough corners and turned my perceptions sideways, reorienting my point of view? I’m asking myself this, because every time these days when I hear another assault against the public eardrum I feel a faint stir of pity rising, and I find myself a tiny, just a wee bit sorry for those little people trying so hard to be big, when they don’t know how.