I heard my mother swear exactly one time.
My brother and I wanted to go to the pool on a blazing summer day. We were already in the back of the Chevette, our legs sticking to the vinyl, and Mom was in the driver’s seat. I cannot remember what Jeremy and I were badgering her about – going sooner, staying longer, more snacks? – but she lost it a tiny, tiny bit.
“Damn it!” She slammed the door and went inside.
Jeremy and I sat in the car for a long time. I probably cried. In time, she came back out and drove us to the pool.
Swearing was taboo in our house. Even now, when I say “shit” in front of my dad, he winces a bit. . . and then gets that furrow of disapproval between his gray eyebrows.
My parents were quite open to most anything – I shaved my head in 7th grade – no reaction; I never had a curfew, just times my parents asked me to be home; no subject was ever off-limits in books. But swearing was not something that happened in the Cumbo home.
It was a taboo certainly carried over from their devout, somewhat conservative Christian faith and from their generational expectations – polite people just don’t swear.
Fuck taboos. I hate them.
I hate the way they make people feel small and tiny. Limited. Controlled.
I hate the way they are wielded like weapons at dinner parties – in polite conversation, we don’t talk about politics, religion, or money – or touted on blogs as the guidelines for being invited in – “swearing is unnecessary.”
I hate the way that people judge each other – and themselves – when people “air their dirty laundry” as if sharing our pain is somehow violating the limits of proper etiquette.
I believe in hanging it all out – the shit stains and the blood marks and the semen etched by love and loathe into the sheets. Because when we hang it all out, the air gets in and opens it up, opens us up.
Because when we show ourselves, even the inky, burnt parts we normally keep turned inward, we heal. We breathe again.
Someone surely is going to say that there are limits to what we should share and when. . . . and I don’t disagree . . . at least not with the idea that we can be wise about what and whom we open up to.
I do, however, disagree with the “should” because “should” is an agent of control that comes from someone other than ourselves. “Should” is that pesky, belittling voice that silences us because it is almost never coupled with “breathe” and “rest” and the honest touch of a warm hand. “Should”- and its brother “should not – are the voices that shout, not the ones that caress.
I am a Christian. I have been taught for almost four decades what I should and should not do, what it is to be “good” and what it is to be “bad.” More often the lessons on “good” washed over me like silk that flowed to other people – the girl who was prettier, thinner; the boy who read his Bible more; the woman who always smiled – but without fail, the “bad” sunk into me like acid, leaving my skin intact and burning into my skeleton. The “should” sticks. The “good” doesn’t.
So I have found my way past the “should” and “should not” to the space beyond that, where God, in all God’s goodness, whispers love and hope and the kind of forgiveness that is about moving forward not miring down.
My mother died from cancer just over three years ago. Even when she was in agonizing pain, she didn’t swear. She didn’t complain.
I wish she had. I wish she’d let loose with every expletive that came to her as the cancer wracked her body. I wish she had screamed out the blood that was murdering her minute by minute.
But she didn’t. She spoke love to us even then. “I love you . . . ”
Every day. Every day, I am grateful that I was raised in a family where love overcame everything. . . even the taboos we taught ourselves. Every day, I’m glad my father’s brow just furrows when I swear . . . and that then, I feel his calloused, soft hand on my shoulder as he whispers, “I’m so proud of you.”
Andi Cumbo-Floyd is the author of The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of my Home. She blogs regularly at andilit.com, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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