THE RIGHT WORDS

By Suzi Lewis Pignataro

When I was a little tyke, Art Linkletter hosted an afternoon family TV show. Everybody’s favorite segment was “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” during which Mr. Linkletter marched a gaggle of freshly scrubbed, petticoated, and bow-tied youngsters into his studio, sat them in a line of chairs and asked them questions which they answered frankly and unabashedly, much to the amusement of the television audience.

My mother and I watched “Kids Say the Darndest Things” together – she taking a break from her housewifely chores, sitting prettily behind me on the turquoise Naugahyde sofa, a dust cloth or dishtowel resting in her lap, and I sitting cross-legged on the den floor in my Popeye sailor hat, a corncob pipe clenched between sturdy baby teeth and “EYEPOP” scrawled on my right forearm in my four-year-old dyslexic hand. I didn’t watch the show for entertainment purposes, or, like my mother, for the sad but reassuring proof that other women’s little girls actually dressed and behaved like one. I studied those shiny, compliant children for clues to normalcy; and finding them in the Breck-shampooed and barretted locks of golden curls, the dimple-on-cue smiles, the polished patent-leather Mary Jane’s and the scab- and dirt-free knees, I decided it was something I’d subject myself to if it got me nationwide coverage.

One day, I stood up in the middle of the show, and with sugar-sticky fists digging into my pudgy waist and my corncob pipe bobbing up and down to the rhythm of my words, I growled at my mother: “Oi! Olive Oyl!”

My mother craned her neck in an attempt to see the screen. I listed slightly, blocking her view. She scowled.

“Really, Suzi. I want to hear what that sweet little girl has to say. She looks just like Shirley Temple, doesn’t she?” Her meaningful look wasn’t lost on me.

“I’m not Suzi, I’m Popeye!” I protested, raising my voice. “Olive Oyl! I wanna be on TV!” I jerked my thumb in the direction of the Philco. “I wanna be on ‘The Art Lick-a-letter Show’!”

My mother smoothed her full-skirted dress then carefully folded her dishtowel. She wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Well, I don’t think that will ever happen,” she replied with quiet but brutal disappointment.

“Why the damn-hell not?” I shouted. Stomping my way to the front door, I barked over my shoulder, “I’m going to Whimpy’s. When Brutus comes home, tell him I wanna be on the damn-it-to-hell TV!”

My mother and father fought over whose fault it was that their youngest daughter behaved like a maniacal cartoon sailor with Tourette’s. I don’t know who won that argument, but the final verdict, declared every week of my childhood, was: “You’ll get yours someday, Suzi Lewis. Just you wait.”

Well, I did – and I did.


Thirty-one years later, I was ten hours into labor with my first child and tasting blood in my throat. I’d been pushing for almost four hours, nonstop, with no drugs to take the edge off the pain or to relieve those present on the maternity ward from the vile words screeching through my vocal chords. No one was spared, not even the Marcus Welby-esque Dr. Berry and his tireless and efficient assistant, Nurse Glenda, whose sunny words of encouragement only managed to produce in me the kind of violence usually reserved for puppy killers.

“I’ve never heard such filth,” she whispered to the doctor, shaking her head while glaring at me over the tops of my knees. “What does that even mean, what she just said? Can you even imagine it? A donkey doing that to a parrot?”

“No wonder the kid doesn’t want to come out,” muttered Dr. Berry from behind his mask as he stared disapprovingly at my stretched but uncooperative nether regions. “He must be terrified.”

As it turned out, the doctor was wrong. Thack wasn’t hiding in the birth canal those four hours, afraid of meeting his sewer-mouthed mother; he was comfortably tucked in between the folds of my warm and pulsating flesh, fastidiously taking notes.

Thack’s dad Mads and I had always been careful. Except for my notorious trawling in Satan’s rectum in the birthing room, we had swept the gutters of our mouths and rid them of all foul words and colorful metaphors. I had treated my child – in utero and out – to my alto warblings of Julie Andrews, Burl Ives and that rock star of the preschool crowd, Raffi. And while Bach and Mozart didn’t find their way into our CD player, I don’t think anyone could have argued against U2 and R.E.M.

They might as well have been Lil Wayne and Ozzy Osborne.

Thack was three and one-half years old when he offered his own version of his brother’s birth to an exceedingly handsome man standing in front of us at the checkout counter.

“Hi, I’m Thack,” he announced to the man, his clear blue eyes sparkling beneath a heavy fringe of white-blond hair.

“Well, hello, Thack,” replied the man, looking down with open interest at my angelic Nordic son. Thack jerked his thumb in Hansie’s direction. “That’s my baby brother.”

Hansie nearly gave himself whiplash wrenching his neck from where he sat at the front of the shopping cart. Anything Thack did was tantamount to witnessing Jesus give sight to the blind with his fingers while turning water into wine with his toes. To Hansie, Thack was Messiah and Houdini in one magnificent, big brother package.

Thack jerked his thumb toward me. “And that’s our mom.”

The man smiled at me and said, “Hi, Mom.” I considered hiding my post-baby weight behind the candy stand but the irony was just too brutal. I opened my mouth to say hi back, but Thack was already moving on, tugging at the man’s sleeve.

“So, anyways,” he continued, “my mom pooped me out of her bottom, but that one,” – again, the thumb-jerk toward Hansie – “she had to be cut open like a big ol’ pig to get him out.”

Suddenly my fat ass was nothing compared to my son’s big mouth. I frantically reached for Thack, as if hoping to find a STOP button. He swatted away my hands. As for the man, he made busy work of rearranging the bread, eggs and orange juice he’d placed on the counter, refusing to look at us. Thack pushed on.

“And she had this big cut on her tummy, like this” – he held his hands up about a foot apart – “down where it’s hairy, but it wasn’t hairy cuz it got shaved, and there were staples, and she couldn’t even fart in case her guts spilled out all over the damn floor.”

“Uh, that’s too bad, pal,” the man said with unconvincing sympathy and stepped out of the line, abandoning his groceries. I wondered how he would explain it to his wife and what she would say in reply – “What do you mean, you barely escaped with your life? And, no, I will not get my tubes tied!” – but thought it better for my mental health if I just let it go.

Later that night, after I’d put the boys to bed, I made Mads a late dinner and told him of the earlier events at the grocery store. He laughed so hard the piece of pork chop he’d been chewing shot out of his nose and landed in his wine glass with a – “Woople!” – as if pleasantly surprised by its sudden and unexpected trajectory. I felt betrayed by both pigs.

The next day, I tried to explain to Thack about “right words” and “wrong words” and failed spectacularly.

“Honey, can you please take your Spiderman underwear off your head when I’m talking to you?”

“No.”

“Well, okay. So, Spiderman, what are some right words you can say to the bad guys?”

“Where the damn-hell’s my boots?”

“No; even bad guys deserve the right words. You would say, ‘Please, Mister Bad Guy, do you know where my boots are?’”

“Why? Are you missing your freakin’ boots too?”

Like Stan the plumber, who periodically rescued everyone from Barney to Batman from our kids’ toilet, I summoned my patience and good humor in helping me get through the ordeal of extracting the right words from my son’s mouth. It became something akin to a religious ritual, practiced five times daily, with Thack’s wrong words being the call to get down on my knees once more and pray to all that was holy for him to be one of those children on Art Linkletter’s show rather than the kind of child I had been: the wrong-words kind.

My heart swelled with pride when, at age four and one-half Thack announced he wanted to bake Santa Claus some cookies for his long trip over the rooftops of the world, but stopped beating in my chest when just a few weeks later he called a restaurant patron “dickhead” for complimenting him on the new Robin costume he had insisted upon wearing, despite it not being Halloween. A week after that, he blasted a boy at his preschool for accidentally hitting him during a play. “Son of a bitch!” was recorded on every video camera running in the room but mine. Call it what you will – fate, miracle or missed opportunity – it was my luck – good or bad; I’m not sure – that my camera’s battery died one second before my son shouted those words.

It was time to ask for help.

At Thack’s pre-kindergarten exam, I informed his pediatrician – a highly credentialed man with a corny sense of humor that either greatly charmed or deeply annoyed – that Thack had trouble with “potty mouth” and “mean talk.” “He probably gets it from other kids, you know,” I lied. I had yet to share with anyone my theory of Vaginal Audio Transmission – or VAT.

The doctor made a goofy face at Thack and said in a sing-song voice, “Oopsies! Is someone being a bad boy?” Thack burst into tears. “I’m gonna kill you and feed your private parts to Godzilla, you fucker,” he cried, then stormed out of the examination room.

Clutching his breast, the doctor turned on me. “Just what kind of a mother are you!” he charged.

“And what kind of an asshole are you?” I shot back before running after my child.

I changed doctors and continued my right words/wrong words tutorials with renewed fervor.

That summer, we moved into town to be closer to the public school Thack would be attending in the fall. One morning a crew of coarse-whiskered, Camels-smoking, orange-vested men with grit under their nails and asphalt in their boot heels drove trucks, backhoes and steamrollers into our cul-de-sac. They stopped right in front of our home, immediately becoming the biggest attraction since Mads had brought home a bright red Honda VFR and let the kids stagger around in his AFM-certified helmet like drunken Martians.

Thack’s hero at the time was a guy on PBS called Mike. Mike wore a hard hat – though he more resembled a Midwestern Ag teacher than a road worker – and taught kids everything they ever wanted to know about road-work vehicles but how to hot-wire one on a Saturday night. Every afternoon, wearing his Fisher-Price hard hat and surrounded by his yellow toy earth movers and dump trucks, Thack sat in front of the TV to watch Mike climb into the cabs of vehicles seemingly made for giants. Thack never said a wrong word in front of or about Mike. He slept with an autographed photo of the man hanging over his bed. If Thack was Hansie’s Messiah, Mike was his – and mine. I gave thanks to him every day.

The men repaving our street adored Thack and soon became my family’s heroes. Outfitted in his yellow hard hat and red rain boots, Thack greeted them each morning with a hardy, “Hey Mikes!” “Hey Thack!” they shouted back, waving with one hand while holding a thermos cup filled with black coffee in the other. Thack took up his post at our picket fence, one foot crossed behind the other, his slender arms hanging between the wooden slats. He stayed like that for hours, sometimes instructing, sometimes asking questions, but always ecstatic.

“Oi! Mom!”

I turned from the kitchen sink where Hansie and I were putting his teddy bear through the rigors of a bath.

“What is it, Thack?”

“Don’t call me that. I’m one of the Mikes now.” He swaggered up to me.

“Sorry. What is it, Mike?”

Thack jerked his thumb in the direction of the open front door. I could hear the rhythmic hum and chunk of the equipment tearing up the pavement outside. “Me and the other Mikes are hungry. Fetch us some grub.”

My soapy fists automatically dug into my waist.

“Well, can’t you and the other Mikes wait until I’m done here?” I jerked my own thumb in the opposite direction where Hansie stood on a chair by the sink, stroking his teddy bear’s tummy with a garlic press.

Thack’s fists flew to his waist. “Well, damn-it-to-hell, Mom! Us men are starving out there!” He stomped over to the refrigerator and threw open the door. “Jesus!”

“That’s ‘Cheeze-its’, buster!” I yelled. “Remember? Right words! Rights words! Fucking hell!”

“Sucking bell!” Hansie growled at his teddy bear. He tried to decapitate it with a rubber spatula.

Thack closed the refrigerator door. “Mom,” he said anxiously, putting his hand on my arm. “Don’t say the wrong words in front of my baby brother.”

Dropping to the kitchen floor, I covered my face with my hands and moaned.

I was plunged through a memory wormhole that dumped me into 1960, with my mother clutching Johnny to her chest, her left hand pressed against his right ear. “Suzi! Don’t say those words in front of your baby brother!” And me, fists digging into my pudgy waist, yelling back, “I’m not Suzi, I’m Popeye! And I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam!” before stomping out of the house and slamming the door behind me.

A year later, we sat with the kids’ paternal grandparents at the Oakland Fairyland lunch grounds. Mads had gone off to buy Thack and Hansie their favorite crap food. Sonja joked around with the kids while Lars smiled to himself, blissfully tuned out. He’d turned off his hearing aides the moment we walked through the park gates.

Thack had recently passed kindergarten with flying colors. “There’s something very special about your son,” his teacher had stated as we sat together watching him play with his classmates on the last day of school. “He’s so thoughtful with the underdogs, and yet also very tuned into the geniuses. He identifies with them both.” She looked me in the eye with a frankness that scared me. “I think we are going to discover some things about Thack next year when he is expected to perform real academics.”
“What do you mean?” I asked defensively.

She selected her next words carefully. “I think what we have here is a brilliant and highly imaginative child, with a naturally sweet and insightful disposition. We all adore him – he’s a hoot; an original – but he processes the world differently than other kids, and when he’s having a hard time with – ”

“I know!” I cried. “He’s always had trouble with his mouth!”

The teacher squinted at me. “His mouth?”

“You know. The wrong words. Bad words.”

The teacher shook her head. “I don’t hear anything inappropriate from Thack here. What I find is that the stimuli of the classroom cause him to lose focus and get a bit disruptive – but never, ever does he utter an unkind or bad word.” She offered a reassuring smile. “Thack is a beautiful boy, Suzi. But I believe sensory integration issues will become increasingly problematic, as will problems with focus. We’ll keep on top of it – don’t you worry – and will make the necessary evaluations. Meanwhile, watch his stress level. I think what you are trying to tell me is that Thack loses it sometimes, probably when he’s feeling anxious, threatened or frustrated. Like I said: He’s really bright, and when he gets together with the other bright kids in my class, I tell you, the sparks fly. But there’s a reason why he is so quick to defend the underdogs, and I think it’s because he feels as much kinship with them as he feels with the smart kids – more so when challenged by the world’s demands.” She shook her head. “It must be really difficult to feel incapable of delivering what others expect of you.”

“I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam, so fuck off.”

The teacher chuckled. “I guess you could say that.”

I rubbed my hands through my hair, hard. “No, that is what I said, over and over again, to my mom and dad – well, not the ‘fuck off’ bit – but it was never enough.”

The teacher looked me in the eye again. “Is it going to be enough for you? With Thack?”

Now Mads approached our bench carrying a box loaded with corn dogs, fries and packets of Catsup. I smiled at him; he smiled back with a slight roll of his eyes. Something about the direction in which his eyes moved caused me to look behind him. I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood.

A family of three followed in his wake: two pleasant looking parents in their mid-forties and their son, who looked to be around Thack’s age. The son suffered from what must have been a horribly disfiguring birth defect. He lacked nose and ear cartilage, and his eyes were set far apart and sloped at an impossible angle. The boy’s mouth was a perfect O. The father carried their own boxes of fast food while the mother walked with the boy holding his hand. Nothing in the parents’ demeanor betrayed their own suffering. They appeared for all the world to be perfectly happy folks out with their perfectly normal child. I admired them beyond belief.

Thack sat with Lars – across from Sonja, Hansie and me – with his back to his dad and the approaching family. Sonja spotted her son, then noticed the people behind him. She covered my hand with her own, for a highly charged, split-second panicking squeeze, then, raised it in greeting.

“There’s your dad!” she called out brightly. “Finally! We have hungry pioneers at this table! Bring on the grub!”

As Mads set down his box, the other family took over the table next to ours. Again, Sonja covered my hand. “Breathe,” she whispered.

Corn dogs were passed around and water bottles were produced from my backpack. I focused on doling out the fries and squirting globs of Catsup onto paper napkins. Sonja chatted away at the kids while I silently prayed that Thack would not look over at the other table.

Years before, Thack had been abusive toward a man in our neighborhood who was severely mentally retarded and disfigured. The man and his caregiver used to walk past our house to and from a local fruit stand. Thack would yell at him from the upstairs window – for the man to go away, stay home, die – out of fear of the unknown. I managed to help Thack overcome his fear by stopping the man and his caregiver one day and introducing myself. From the window, Thack watched the man hug me. He saw the caregiver and I chat and laugh like normal people. Then we waved good-bye and I returned to Thack, unharmed and smiling. After that, he left the man alone.

But how would Thack react to a child his own age with such severe disabilities? I had no idea, and I didn’t want to find out.

Thack picked up his corn dog and stared at it. “I know what this is!” he announced.

“WHAT DID HE SAY?” Lars asked.

“HE SAID, HE KNOWS WHAT IT IS!” Sonja shouted. “TURN ON YOUR HEARING AIDES!”

Lars waved away the suggestion as if it were a disagreeable odor.

Thack stood up at the end of our table, his back to the other family.

“I said, I know what this is!” he shouted, holding up the corn dog for all to see.

I glanced at the other table. The father gave me a look that said, “Yeah, we have one too. What can you do?” I was pretty sure they didn’t have one too, and I sure as hell didn’t know what I was going to do with mine.

Thack positioned the corn dog suggestively over his pants zipper. “It’s a weenie!”

Mads choked on his corn dog.

“WHAT DID HE SAY?” Lars asked Sonja.

Sonja shook her head. “NOT WORTH REPEATING!”

I reached for the corn dog. “Uh, Thack, that’s not – ” Thack turned to face the other table. “ – oh God.”

“Hey!” Thack called out to the other boy. “Wanna see my weenie?”

I gave the parents my most remorseful look: Please, oh please, forgive us our sins. They sat utterly still, their eyes flitting between my son and theirs. From their perspective, this must have now seemed a very very bad day at Fairyland.

“Thack!” Mads barked, standing up to tower over his son. Thack ignored him.

“You have one, too!” Thack enthused to the boy.

“WHAT’S GOING ON?” shouted Lars. He looked over at Thack and saw the pornographic corn dog, which Thack was now wagging back and forth. “Oh Jesus,” Lars muttered, covering his eyes.

The boy stared at Thack’s face then at Thack’s corn dog and finally at his own corn dog nestled in its bed of fries. Deliberately avoiding his parents’ clenched-jawed panic, he stood up from his bench, grabbed his corn dog and wagged it in front of his pants zipper.

We adults let out a collective gasp as we were subjected to the two boys standing in front of each other wagging their corn dogs with obscene pleasure.

Then the boy threw back his head and let out a wolf-like howl. Thack threw back his head and joined him. And everyone over the age of six dissolved into nervous hysteria.

Thack and the other boy took off. Hansie hopped down from his seat next to mine and trotted after them. With his corn dog twirling above his head, Thack shouted over his shoulder to the other boys: “Let’s run like hell and let our weenies fly!”

Lars leaned toward me. “WHAT’D HE SAY NOW!” he demanded, his fingers fumbling at his hearing aides.

I wiped the tears from my eyes and attempted to control my laughter. “THE RIGHT WORDS, LARS,” I shouted joyfully. “HE SAID THE DAMN-IT-TO-HELL RIGHT WORDS!”

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