“Look! Women have legs,” four-year old John Patrick Adair shouted from the audience the first time he saw women dancing at a vaudeville show. He grew up to be my grandfather, but this story stuck with him. At the time the family laughed, and his mother shushed him saying, “We don’t say that word. We use the word ‘limbs.’ In those days women always covered their limbs with long skirts.
A generation later in the early 1900’s, when my mother was a child, at dinner when someone was serving chicken or turkey, they asked whether you wanted ‘white or dark meat’ so no one had to say the forbidden word ‘breast.’ To this day I know one woman who still offers ‘the top of the chicken leg’ instead of using the word ‘thigh.’
A generation further on my friend Bemi’s father was adamant that his children never said the word “nuts.” When referring to walnuts or Brazil nuts they were to say “walnuts” or “Brazil nuts.”
When I was in my thirties I could say leg and thigh and breast, but there were words that had never even been formed in my mouth let alone voicing them. Among them were the “f—” word and the “sh–” word. Even my husband Larry had never used those words in my presence until one night at a party he thought I was out of earshot when I heard him tell a story to the men, and he used those words. Later, when I told him I had overheard the story he was most uncomfortable.
Thus it was that came one of the most memorable moments in my teaching career. I was doing my student teaching at Madison Elementary School in Santa Monica. I was assigned to a combination of fifth and sixth grades. Among my students were two children whose families I knew personally—one was the famous folk singer Bess Hawes’ daughter and the other was the son of a social service worker who, incidentally, attended my church. Came the day of the first afternoon PTA meeting that I ever attended as a teacher—previously I had always been there as a parent.
During the social hour Bess Hawes and the Social Worker Lady sought me out and we sat together at a table having tea and cookies. I felt somewhat responsible in my role as teacher, and felt I had to start the conversation somewhere. Lacking anything smarter to say I asked, “How do you feel about Madison as your children’s school?” Bess kind of mumbled, but the Social Worker Lady spoke up, “What goes on in the classrooms is fine, but I don’t care for the language the children use on the playground.” I mulled that over for a moment and then came back with my thoughts. “I think there is not a school in the world that when children are on the playground out of earshot of adults where they don’t use language parents wouldn’t approve.”
Her answer came right back. “I don’t care if they say fuck and shit when they mean fuck and shit, but I don’t like it when they use those words as adjectives.”
I had no reply.
Last weekend in Mariposa local social service professionals presented a stage performance of the Vagina Monologues. Yes, you read correctly. This was an evening’s presentation by local women delivering the script of various monologues relating widely differing attitudes of individual women’s experiences with the “V” word. It was a benefit for the Mariposa Mountain Crisis Services, a Women’s Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence. Some of our friends were performing. Daughter Holly, friend Rita, and I went together. At twenty dollars a seat and publicity only by word of mouth, the small theatre was packed for two nights.
Was everyone in the audience comfortable?
Well, when I told Holly that I was basing this week’s memoir on that experience, she said she wanted to censor it before I read it in our class. I told her no.
I did read it to my friend Rita, and told her she could censor it. She eliminated the last three paragraphs.