“I know what everyone was saying but none of them knew what was really going on. Mother needed help around the house and it just made sense to bring the three little girls with me. Calling a simple vacation a separation and then jumping from there to “Dave and June are heading for a divorce?” That’s people for you, always making a mountains out of molehills. The girls and I were just taking a vacation. Not a separation – just a simple vacation!”
Hmmm. A three-month vacation with just the three younger sisters with just a single postcard and one phone call for the entire time? I was having a hard time squaring that line with Dad sleeping on the living room couch most of the previous summer and dinner-time tension was just as hard to slice as the liver1 we regularly had to gag down.
Yeeeaaah…a vacation. Right.
Irony aside it was still a heartwarming surprise when Mom and the little girls returned home shortly before Christmas, followed by an even bigger surprise when Dad didn’t resume sleeping on the couch. I loved my little sisters and it was so nice having them home that I blew off basketball practice to spend that first weekend listening to their stories and looking at photos of grandparents, cousins, and former classmates from Bell Hill Elementary. On the other hand I had nothing really new to welcome them home with other than my abysmal showing at basketball or the fact that my attic loft bedroom had finally been finished2. I was surprised to find that meager offering to be just the ticket as my three little sisters immediately demanded a tour of my new digs.
Unfortunately an 8’X12’ plywood shell heated to a marginally habitable degree held little interest for the older two, and within minutes it was just me and my youngest sister Merriweather, which was OK by me as she was my favorite. As the second of five children and the only son, I had awaited each subsequent birth with fervent prayers for a brother, but when I learned that there would be two Y chromosomes involved in the final addition to our family I resolutely declared that gender aside, I was going his final sibling to “teach her how to play ‘boy’ stuff!”
…and that’s exactly what happened. I don’t know if it was the fact that our birthdays were three days apart, our first names started with the same letter, or just her cuteness quotient factored into the seven years between out ages: Merriweather and I were inseparable. When she moved from toddler to kid her innate talent for gymnastics combined with the vast difference in size and strength made for an act that would have fit right in on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace.
Our carefully rehearsed routine of carefully orchestrated stunts included;
- Picking her up by her head…while keeping her weight supported by her concealed grip on my wrists.
- Walking on her stomach…which entailed a rather theatrical hop while all my weight was supported by my other non-hopping foot.
- Climbing me like a mountain …which was exactly what it appeared to be.
The loft tour quickly transitioned into talking about our favorite songs and TV shows like The Monkees and Space Ghost interspersed with the occasional kid-centric observation from the California trip. It didn’t really matter – she was my beloved baby sister and I would have been delighted to listen to any topic as she chattered on and on, curled up in the quilt at the end of my bunk. However after the third comment on the raging Davy Jones vs. Mickey Dolenz debate I started to zone out in favor of the latest issue of Mad magazine and I didn’t immediately pick up on the long pause …but I most definitely caught the first word as she resumed her commentary.
It was one of the earliest times I can remember that Fate dragged the great cosmic tone arm across the 33 1/3 rpm album of my life. The abruptness of the utterance stunned me into a prolonged silence broken by my trademark witty response (“URK!”) squeezed out as my normal anxiety became even more uncomfortable. A quick check of Merriweather’s open expression revealed that she really didn’t understand the gravity of what she’d just uttered – so in a ploy to buy time I armed her with a sheet of paper and my treasured turquoise Flair pen to distract her while I desperately came up with a plan.
…only to be further distressed when Mom unexpectedy called up the ladder “Hey kids is everything going OK up there?” which was almost immediately followed by a second utterance of bombshell from my little sister.
I slipped into hyperational thought: “Hey – its 1966 and we’re well past getting uptight about body stuff. Besides Mom’s a registered nurse and hip to the ways of the world. She’ll see right away that this is something Merriweather picked up during the trip and…”
Then reality set in and I thought back to catching hell for:
- Failing to keep Fauna from running her arm through the wringer of a derelict washing machine sitting along the south pasture fence line while I was digging postholes along the north pasture fence line.
- Driving my father back into a pack-a-day habit through my callous decision earlier in the year to buy a pair of Beatle boots for school wear.
- Allowing my drawing skill to ‘distress” a classmate into liberating (for himself) arithmetic homework answers from the teacher’s manual.
Mom’s third and even more strident inquiry up the ladder jolted me out of my reverie into reality and a “Yep – I’m a dead man”. Knowing that further delay would just add velocity to the inevitable percussive counseling I called down the ladder to Mom and as euphemistically as possible reported on Merriweather’s expanded vocabulary.
…and then a miracle happened. It may have been that the lack of visual contact between the bottom of the ladder and the loft buffered the shock but instead of going ballistic Mom went into a very articulate but symbolic definition of the word. Rather than dismissing it as “dirty” she explained that it was a coarse expression for what was otherwise a beautiful, reaffirming act between two loving people. Merriweather seemed to follow the general concept but her attention started to drift when Mom side-stepped into a more esoteric seed/earth/plant analogy.
At first all I could think was “Who are you and what have you done with my Mom?” but then I could see that her measured response simultaneously fulfilled Merriweathers’s curiosity and neatly excised the reactive curiosity an angrier response would have triggered as in “If Mom’s that worked up it must be something cool!”…then with perfect timing Dad’s voice rang out with a summons for a late breakfast and any remaining tension was dispelled in the general stampede towards the table.
Nothing was said during the meal, but then again you never let anything as minor as the spoken word get between you and a Dad-breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits and pancakes. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop during the following week, but during the following month I pieced together enough otherwise random off-hand comments to see that the trip south had been an eye-opener for Mom regarding some of her extended family, and that she’d immediately concluded that Merriweather had picked up the term during their trip to California. With the exception of a dried-out turquoise Flair pen, I’d gotten out of the incident unscathed.
Unscathed but not unaffected. I don’t know if it was fallout from the move down to the Peninsula in the summer of 1964 or my mom’s admitted discomfort with dealing with teenagers, but the two of us had been mixing like oil and water for the last couple of years. Watching her tackle such a difficult subject with such grace added a new dimension to her personality which in turn provided some hope for an eventual thaw in our icy relationship.
As the years went by, there was another smaller side benefit for me. When people talk about life in the Sixties what they usually mean is the latter-half of the decade on up to about 1972. Mad Men aside, the first part of that decade was not much different from the Eisenhower era immediately preceding, but little did I know that as a thirteen year old I was standing on the edge of a cultural tsunami that would upend society’s norms for just about everything connected to sex including That Word. Where it had once been unmentionable to 90% of society its use became widespread enough to be the subject of a best-selling comedy album/routine3. Where its use had once been limited to the locker room, oil field or army barracks, it became the “universal adjective” 4 used by people in all walks of life
…but whenever I heard the word all I could think about was Merriweather’s confused reactions to Mom’s “seed” analogy5 and I’d bust up laughing….
- Serving liver for dinner was the meanest culinary trick ever; a bait switch of the worst kind as it smelled as savory as a regular steak but had all the mouth-watering taste associated with licking a flashlight battery.
- More accurately unfinished. My father was plagued with personality quirk that kept him from completing every project I ever saw him start. To this day 54 years later the last four feet of my room remains unpaneled and the four outbuildings he built on the homestead continue to stand unfinished in some way or another.
- George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t say on Television” from the 1972 album Class Clown. Also used extensively in multiple albums by L.A. based “hard comedy” duo Cheech & Chong.
- As in “close the f*cking door and sit down at the f*cking table. It’s f*cking cold in here!” as heard in the mess tent at the Clear Creek Forward Operating Base during JRX BRIM FROST 1981.
- “…wait, is there supposed to be dirt down there?”