The Washington Post Magazine, January 4, 2009
F for Effort
“Mom, may I please print something?” asks R.J., my eight-year-old son, in his sweetest, most innocent voice.
I have my hand stuck up a bird feeling for giblets.
“Sure,” I reply.
I hear the hum of the printer and yank the giblets out. A little while later, the chicken roasts in the oven and a kettle simmers on the stove. While “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen plays on the oldies station, R.J. walks into the kitchen, his eyebrows knitted intently as he cradles a sheaf of paper.
“I see a little silhouette of a man,” I sing. “Scaramouch, scaramouch, will you do the...”
The kettle shrieks and I whisk it off the burner.
“Mom,” says R.J., “you know that bad word—the F word.”
“Fandango!” I say, accidentally scalding myself with a few drops of hot water that miss the teapot.
“Not that one,” he says, rolling his eyes, “the F word.”
“Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening,” I think as I run cold water over my hand.
“Well, it’s an Anglo-Saxon word,” he says. “There was even a man called John You-Know-What. Besides, it means mating!” He pauses for effect, waving the sheaf at me. “How can a word like that be bad?”
“Can Mommy see that?” I ask in a high voice laced with anxiety taking the paper, still smelling of ink, out of his hands.
My son has printed out about 20 Wikipedia pages on the definition of a swear word—under parental supervision. My eyes scan the text, frantically at first and then with curiosity. Hmm, first occurrence in a 1475 poem about randy Cambridge friars; a place called Fuccerham from an Anglo-Saxon land deed; Norwegian word fokk meaning streaks of foam and spray at sea. This is like F through K 101. I suppress a wry smile.
“Mom, I haven’t finished reading that,” says R.J., snatching the bundle out of my hands and jerking me out of my thoughts. With a child’s agility, he vaults out of my reach, guarding his National Treasure du jour. I give chase, plead, reason, threaten consequences and finally catch him, wrestling the wad of paper—now smudged, shredded and crumpled—out of his clutches.
“Let’s have some tea before we talk,” I say.
He nods, eyes welling up.
I have shielded R.J. from blasphemy since birth: covering his eyes when we pass French Connection boutiques (with their FCUK logo); switching channels when chef Gordon Ramsay—as famous for his spicy speech as for his gourmet food—cooks on BBC America; pointing out something on the opposite side of the street when we drive by inappropriate graffiti; removing from his reach reading materials that may contain offensive language.
Then again, I think, paraphrasing the Bard, “What’s in a word?” We all learn swear words by adulthood, some of us even use them. But kids are not grownups. It is our responsibility to guide them—say please, thank you; not bleep—until they are old enough to make their own decisions.
My husband Ron shields our son less but helps him mature more. He set up my old computer in the family room for R.J., precisely so he could look things up in the open. Though the computer has parental controls, I worry R.J. will Google worse things when older—or on a friend’s computer with no controls. Forget “Let’s talk after tea,” I would need a stiff drink before I broach the propriety of, say, surfing for Fat Bottomed Girls! Still, Ron talks to R.J. about making good choices. R.J. never goes online without asking permission and rarely looks up things we do not approve of.
The truth is kids grow up: they hear things, read and see stuff. Those who are curious act on it. I am proud of my son’s industrious initiative, research tactics and dogged determination to learn something he does not understand. Even something he knows might get him in trouble. I remember looking up swear words in a dictionary when I was a kid, but I never did R.J.’s level of research. We had no Google then. Once R.J. realizes I am not punishing him or cross, I share all this with him. I also talk about words, how their meanings and applications change, how some words are inappropriate for use in certain circumstances, how other words are simply grown-up words, best looked up and learned when older. That night, after our roast chicken dinner, Ron tucks R.J. into bed, whispers to him about trust and responsibility when operating a computer. All is well.
“I didn’t want to alarm you last night,” says Ron the next morning, “but I found the pages in the printer that R.J. hadn’t removed. Merriam-Webster Online. With audio pronunciation tips.”
Last spring my eight-year-old son R.J. showed me a bird’s nest in our silver maple. The wide-girthed tree crowns our modest backyard, an earth-bound shelter for suburban fauna, scrappy squirrels, toothsome chipmunks and commonplace feathered friends. I decide the nest belongs to robins. Not because I saw anything through the murky blur of my kid’s binoculars, but because R.J. found a blue eggshell on the ground beneath the nest the following day and reported on robin-sightings for the rest of the week.
“R.J., help me take out the trash,” I say one afternoon, words that I will regret shortly.
I lug the open overflowing recycle bin, while R.J. pulls the shut trashcan on wheels down our sloped driveway to the street. While I rearrange newspapers running like a creek, I hear R.J. walk up the drive, come running back toward me, then away again.
“Mom, come,” he shouts, his voice fading in and out, “A baby bird fell out of the nest!”
Sure enough, a fledgling lies on the brick patio, beak gaping open, scrawny neck distended, tiny claws curling, a damp spot near its head. A sad thing. R.J. stands transfixed, before breaking off and running erratic circles around the lawn. For a child who cried inconsolably at age-three when a car blew up in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie, his reaction does not surprise me.
“Poor baby bird. He’s dead! What’re his parents going to do?” says R.J., quick to ascribe sex and parentage to the sorry creature, “His life had just begun. His mom is probably getting him a worm!”
This time, I know I cannot say the deceased is going to car heaven. Indeed, I am not sure I can say it is going to heaven at all. Although my husband, R.J. and I say grace every night partly out of habit and partly for being genuinely thankful, we do not participate in organized religion.
“It’s OK. Come here, I’ll take care of it,” I say reaching for my son who eludes my grasp.
“No, it’s not OK. Mom, do something.”
What am I supposed to do: administer CPR, call an EMT, get the ASPCA? Think. I grab a plastic bag. Like dog owners scooping poop, I use the sheeting like a glove and pick up the limp bird, so light and frail, still warm in my hand. I run toward the street.
“Don’t throw him away!” calls R.J., as if reading my intention to pop the critter into the lidded trashcan full of misshapen garbage bags, just one more misshapen rotting thing.
It is not that I do everything my child says, but I just cannot bring myself to toss the bird. Instead, for want of a quick solution, I slip it in the recycle bin and walk back to comfort my son.
“Where did you put him?” he asks in an accusatory tone.
I pause. “Not in the trashcan,” I say in a small voice.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU PUT HIM IN THE RECYCLE BIN!”
All of my son’s ire turns on me. Rightfully so, I unceremoniously stuffed a dead bird between the Classifieds. I remember how traumatized I was to see my first dead animal, many of them at once, actually, stray dogs poisoned by animal control in Tehran, Iran. The dogs were freshly dead, like new stuffed toys lining up along one side of a sunlit street, except for the filthy flies buzzing around their closed seeping eyes. I swatted angrily and helplessly at the flies with one hand, trying to do something, anything, while my nanny dragged me by my other hand away from the sorry massacre. I was about R.J.’s age.
“What should we do, R.J.?” I kneel in front of him, taking his hands in both of mine.
I get a trowel and a spade. R.J. solemnly sets to work and digs a hole in a flowerbed. I gently put the bird in, cover him with green leaves, then with crumbly soil. Once I fill the hole, R.J. runs off and comes back with a piece of wood, a makeshift grave marker bearing the words ‘R.I.P., In Memory of Cute Bird, April 2007’ in Sharpie. My thoughts flash to Oxford where I insisted my dead goldfish be properly disposed of; I flushed Percy down a toilet my freshman year, but only after my friend, a theology student, recited the ‘ashes to ashes’ prayer, except he substituted ‘water to water’ for the ‘earth to earth’ part. Though we laughed until we wept, the gesture was heartfelt and Percy got a proper send off. I say a little prayer for the fledgling. I do not tell R.J. worms will eat it, though he probably knows. I do tell him that something pretty will grow out of the soil to which the bird has been returned. R.J. is content.
For the next year, I find makeshift graves here and there: spider corpses found in the bathtub wrapped like miniature mummies in toilet paper; twigs marking the resting place of earwigs; my favorite, a neatly folded cardboard sarcophagus containing a dead cricket found in the basement, ‘In Memory of the Dead Cricket, 10/17/07, 7:30 PM, Wednesday night.’ This one is still tucked somewhere on R.J.’s desk. Dead insect or not, I cannot throw it away.
This weekend, R.J., now nine-years-old, returns from his first overnight Boy Scout camping trip. He drank rainwater, cooked over a campfire and slept outdoors in a tent.
“I saw six deer,” he says, “Four on the way there, one at the campsite, darting in the trees.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot the dead one shot by hunters.”
“Oh dear, did you want to bury it?”
“Mom!” he says, rolling his eyes, then as a gentler afterthought, “Well, it was kind of big.”
Copyright Charlotte Safavi