It was a warm, May Friday in 2010. The birds were chirping, the air was fragrant with blooming, and as the big yellow school bus pulled out of our cul-de-sac, our then-third grader, Big, ran through the door of our mudroom, backpack flung to the side, and all hugs and smiles. My husband and I were both home, waiting to kick off what would be a gorgeous Spring weekend a little early.
“Mom,” Big said as he pulled off his socks and tossed them on the heap of school things that littered the mudroom floor, “what’s a douchebag?”
The birds still chirped merrily as everything around me grew dim and silent.
Big looked up at me quizzically. I darted my eyes at my husband, whose own were wide as he almost perceptibly shook his head: Not me, I didn’t teach him that one, his look said.
Drawing a breath, I centered my energy and decided that I would handle this one.
“Oh, um, honey, I think you mean “Deutsche-bahg“. Yes, that’s probably what you meant to say. DOY-shuh-bahg, I repeated, drawing the first part of the word out into two distinct syllables and softening the last “a” to an “ahhhh”. “Like…Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Marks. You know – the hot dog? Deutsche Maker?”
“Uh…I guess,” Big said. “But what’s it mean?”
Glancing at my husband, who was curious at this point to find out exactly how I was going to redirect this conversation, I held up a hand and answered, “Well, I’m not totally sure, but I know that it’s a German word, and it’s impolite to say it. It’s offensive to Germans, but I’m not sure why. And you never can really tell who’s German, can you? So it’s best not to say it.”
I have to say, I impressed the heck out of myself with my explanation.
Big, who, back then, didn’t want to offend anyone, accepted the answer and moved on.
As he walked into the kitchen for a snack, I smirked in my husband’s direction, and continued to pat myself on the back for neutralizing any blight on my son’s developing vocabulary. For gracefully dismantling any discomfort that we would have to deal with on that beautiful day, when we had such pleasant plans. And, now that I look back on it, for lying to my kid.
But as Fate often has it with me, I get away with nothing. And the payment for the delay in my eventual honesty would be settled with compounded interest.
On another day, an equally beautiful day in August of that same year, Big was invited to go to the beach with another family that has two sons, both of whom are older by two and a half years and nine months, respectively, than Big. That morning, off he went on his seaside adventure. Meanwhile, I spent the day in blissful ignorance of what was unfolding.
At 4:00 p.m., Big rolled into the driveway, then stomped into the mudroom, dropping his beach towel and shedding sand.
One look was all it took. Well, except for one statement:
“It’s DOOOOSH-bag, Mom, and you knew it, and I looked like an idiot, and I lost a bet.”
“Uh…” was all I could say, standing now in the very same spot where, months earlier, I had basked in the glow of my own smug brilliance.
After he washed up, I climbed the stairs to his room, where I said nothing but let him continue his story.
“We were on the beach, and Tim told Tommy to stop being a DOOOSHBAG, and I said, ‘Oh no: it’s not pronounced that way. It’s DOY-shuh-BAHG, and my mom knows for sure, and she should know anyways because she’s an English teacher. And you never should say it because you just don’t know who could be German.”
Once they had stopped being stunned, they laughed. And kept laughing. And then asked if he wanted to bet on it.
And of course he did, because his very own mother had told him that it was so. And she should know.
And of course, on the way home, right there at the pharmacist’s counter at CVS, my kid found out exactly how douchebag is pronounced, and furthermore, what one is. And had to pay off his lost bet in bubblegum. And narrowly escaped earning himself an unfortunate nickname.
He heard the word he had come home from the bus ride with, a word, actually, that is French in its roots and pronunciation, one that, implausibly and irrationally, but commonly, nonetheless, is used in masculine circles.
But even worse than having an 8 year old know how to use a French word for a feminine product so indelicately was something I couldn’t blame on an older kid on the same bus that day in May, or an inattentive bus monitor, or even Tim and Tommy: I had only myself to blame for lying to my son about something that made me, personally, uncomfortable. Looking back, I could have told him simply that it was a perfectly decent word, used impolitely in this case, and once I had decided on exactly how to explain such an item to an 8 year old with different anatomy, I could have found the age appropriate words. I write and read for a living; really, I have no excuse.
So I had to get honest with myself. And I had to apologize to Big, in many ways, including English, German (“Verzeihung”) , French (“Je suis desolee”), Looking Remorseful, and Baking Cookies, and then promise him – and mean it – that I would answer any question that he posed as truthfully – and as appropriately to the occasion – as I could, even if it made me uncomfortable.
The truth will set you free and pay dividends. And it has for us: we broach difficult topics more honestly now, we are both learning how much and when to explain about delicate subjects at certain times, and if I get annoyed at someone when I’m driving, I can call him or her a Deutsche Mark with impunity.