I’m starting this week with a story set in our living room sometime last week. It was getting late at the end of a very long, very busy day, and Trish and I were on the two couches in our living room, working on our computers, while Annabelle entertained herself.
She wasn’t quite ready for her bedtime yet, and I guess she wanted more attention than she was getting, because she jumped in front of the TV (clearly the focal point of our living room) and shouted, “Hey!”
Trish looked up. A moment later I tore my eyes from my monitor, too. When she was finally satisfied all eyes were on her, Annabelle said, “I have a new song.”
Trish smiled. I said, “Sing it.”
It went something like this:
Once there was a girl
And her name was Annabelle.
She was a princess.
She was very pretty.
I love her.
I often set aside some time to waste worrying how good a job we’re doing raising our kids. Then one of them goes and does something like that, and I realize we’re doing just fine.
I guess I’m in a reminiscing mode these days, because Annabelle’s impromptu song put me in mind of a story from my childhood. Once again, it comes from around the age of ten, when we lived on the great sprawling expanse of my parents’ hobby farm.
Once again, it was inspired by some bit of nonsense I’d seen on some children’s show. Somewhere I’d picked up the line, “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest! Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
So I was thinking pirates. At the bottom of our wooded hillside was a shady, swampy little grotto that felt very pirate to me. So on some happy, sunny Saturday I was camped out in the depth of the grotto, tromping around like I owned the place and singing at the top of my lungs.
Problem was, that was all I knew of the song. So, like Annabelle, I just started making stuff up. I made a story of it. I’d never really spent any time on pirates before, though, so I had surprisingly little to go on. I knew they used swords and boats. I knew they hung around water. That was about it.
But I spun a tale anyway. I followed the age-old advice (before I’d even heard it) and decided to write what I knew. And when it came to water, my favorite pastime was building dams. I’ve talked about that elsewhere, but whether it was on a camping trip or just in the stream across our pasture, I loved the process of hauling stones and building dams to create deep, slow pools.
So in my improvisational epic, my brave pirates were building a great dam. They would raid. They would pillage. They would buckle swashes. But they did it all in the name of gathering the materials needed to build their dam.
I was really in the heart of it, just belting out my chorus, when my older sister came skipping around the corner. She stopped for a moment, listening. Then her eyes got wide, her mouth made a big O, and she screamed, “You’re in trouble! You’re in trouble!” And she took the steep slope up to our house at a full sprint.
I ran up after her, trying to figure out what was wrong, but I couldn’t catch her. I got into the house to find her tattling to Mom, all breathless and offended. She jabbed a finger at me, and said, “It’s true! I heard him. He was saying it over and over again. Damn. Damn. Damn.”
I blanched, just to hear the words out of my sister’s mouth. Then Mom turned on me in a blazing fury. I tried to explain, but it sounded awfully hollow. “No, no, I was singing about pirates damming a river.” I’m not sure she even heard the distinction in spelling I was trying to explain.
But Mom did not want to raise a family of filthy potty-mouths. She marched me straight to the bathroom and, in a show of truly old-school parenting, she washed my mouth out with soap. I cried and yelled and insisted it was all unfair, but she went right through with her punishment, and when she was done, she said she hoped I’d learned my lesson.
I went to my bedroom and slammed the door. My day had gone a long way downhill from dancing in a shady grotto singing away an afternoon.
I spent a lot of time brooding on the injustice of it all. There was no way I could explain. Even as I a child, I could see the futility. The truth was too thin. It would just sound like an excuse. I raged…but I had no real recourse.
At dinner, Mom related the incident to Dad, so he could nod gravely and give me a stern look and insist I never use such uncouth language. He pantomimed wide-eyed horror when Mom said she’d had to wash my mouth out with soap, trying to drive the point home, and mused, “That must have been awful.”
I huffed. Then I sat up straight, met his eyes, and said, “No. It wasn’t so bad.” I turned my level gaze to Mom and smiled with all the bitter irony a ten-year-old can muster. “It just tasted clean.”
A couple hours later the event was forgotten. Mom was herding us all through our nightly rituals, and she chased me into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and when she reached for the toothpaste I hit her with that same level look again and said, “No thanks, Mom. I’ll just use the soap.”
And with all the dignity of any languishing political prisoner, I lathered up my toothbrush with the same soap she’d used to punish me, and washed my own mouth out. I did it again the next morning, and every day for most of a week.
That’s me, ladies and gentlemen: ten years old, and already a nuanced master of passive political protest. Or maybe just a huge smart-ass. Either way, I won.