When I was seven or eight I learned my first cuss word. I grew up in a home where alcohol and smoking and “potty-mouthing” were not allowed until my mother married a second time and her new husband brought two sons into our home.
One weekend all the boys set out to watch a new John Wayne movie. I don’t remember the name of the movie but John Wayne was leading a band of young rebels or a band of young rebels were chasing him. I remember repeatedly hearing the phrase “son of a bench” throughout the movie.
The next day I asked Brian, the kinder and younger of the two brothers, but still many years older than me, what “son of a bench” meant in the John Wayne movie. Brian stopped washing the dishes for a moment, blew a soap bubble at me from the back of his hand and said laughing, “It’s son of a ‘bitch,’ not bench.”
I paused for a moment as he went back to washing. I asked him what a “bitch” was he said without pausing, “your mother is one.” I remember feeling somehow wounded by his tone but I was still confused because even though I had an idea what he meant, I didn’t have the full understanding of the word yet. Brian saw my confusion and said, “A bitch is a mean woman. Like your mother.” “Ah,” I sighed. “Good.” Brian rinsed a skillet and said over the froth of running water, “Oh, and the ‘son’ — of the bitch — is you.”
“Mmm,” I mumbled as I turned to leave the kitchen. I wasn’t used to that kind of crass talk around the house but I also wasn’t used to how hard they would punch and hit and tackle me in the house during roughhousing sessions, either. I was becoming numb to their cruelty. “Hey, Dave?” Brian called out as I was walking away. I stopped and turned to face him. “There’s no Santa Claus, either.”
Brian grinned and stared hard at me for a reaction. I gave him back a stone face. As I left the room I couldn’t stop feeling heartbroken. Losing Santa Claus was more devastating than learning what I already knew: I had a bitch of a mother. The boys were gone in a divorce a year later.