Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Buying Groceries

When I was growing up, my family could have won a contest for Best Use of Euphemism in a Suburban Setting, had there been such an award. If a sensitive topic couldn’t be ignored completely, there was a strange set of Kendrick-only vocabulary words with which it could be dealt. My sister, for example, was in her first semester of nursing school before she learned that the correct anatomical terms were not “front bottom” and “back bottom.”

My own parenting goal has been to remain euphemism-free as much as possible, but it often gets me into trouble. A few years ago, for example, I was chaperone for a cabin of middle-school girls who were members of the youth symphony. As they were settling in for the night, gathered at the end of my bunk (it wasn’t my magnetic personality; it’s where the chocolate chip cookies were), their talk turned to boys and dating. One of girls said, “I heard it’s illegal to go on a date with a seventeen year old.” They turned to me. I glanced up from whatever I was reading and said offhandedly, “No, dear, it’s just illegal to have sex with him.” Talk about a way to make kids get quiet. The cabin was stone cold silent, and more than a few mouths were gaping open. The question-asker turned to Emma, awed, and asked, “Is she always like that?” indicating that my frankness was way-cool. “Yeah, she’s pretty much always the same,” Emma sighed, weary and miserable. Sexual frankness may be desired in a cabin chaperone, but it’s a trait to be avoided in a mother.

One day this summer, though, I fell prey to euphemising, if that’s a verb. And I not only initiated the euphemistic use, I invented the new term. Our family, I think, will never be the same. Here’s how it started -- I was entertaining one of my best friends, Maren Woodhouse, for the afternoon. Maren is what I would describe as the exact perfect age for a human – four and a half. She’s old enough to put on her own shoes, but young enough to have thus far avoided the demoralizing experiences that will be served up to her for the next 16 or so years in school.

Maren was at the kitchen counter, enjoying a frozen Gogurt, when Emma and Mary Katherine wandered in. Emma started talking about the foreign exchange student she was hoping we could get, and she mentioned once more how much fun it would be to get a boy and finally have a brother (significant look at Mary Katherine). I told her that I’d had a frank conversation with a family friend on that topic just yesterday, and that he had expressed astonishment that I’d allow a boy in the house under those circumstances. “They’ll be having sex all the time!” he told me. “Really?” I had asked, surprised. I had honestly thought that Emma was more interested in a basketball-playing buddy than a sex partner, but I thought I ought to let her know the word on the street and get her reaction.

“He Thinks I’m Going to Be HAVING SEX?!” she shrieked. “Having sex in the basement? In my room? Having sex with a foreign boy? Having sex?!”

At this point in the conversation, my attention turned to the little Gogurt-eater at my elbow. I have had occasion to witness her word-for-word reenactment of conversations she found interesting, and I didn’t think her mom would appreciate this particular line of dialogue turning up at the Woodhouse dinner table that evening. But I hadn’t seen Emma much over the summer (my hours being 5 a.m. – 9 p.m., hers being 1 p.m.– 3 a.m.), and I thought we ought to talk about this subject. So I fell prey to euphemism.

“For the continued purposes of this conversation,” I said, nodding significantly toward Maren, “let’s say, um …” I floundered for the right verb, then hit upon it. “Let’s say ‘buying groceries’ to describe this activity our friend thinks you will engage in with the exchange student.”

Emma picked up the phrase without a stumble and continued her rant. “If he thinks I’ll just haul off and buy groceries with some guy just because he’s in the same house, he’s cracked,” she went on. “I am not a grocery buying kind of girl. And I could go off and buy groceries anywhere, not just be so lazy as to buy groceries with my exchange brother.”

Maren kept working on her Gogurt.

Emma went on. “And what if we bought groceries and then I decided that I hated him? I’d be stuck here with him til June, and maybe he’d want to buy groceries and I wouldn’t. Ick.”

Mary Katherine got into the spirit of the thing. “What about double coupon days?” she deadpanned. “And recyclable bags?”

She and Emma laughed so hard they cried, and Mary rolled around on the floor a bit, which is a pretty normal occurrence that Maren studiously ignored.

“I’m done with my Gogurt,” my friend announced, “and I want to play with the Barbies.”

Since that day, my girls have trotted out “buying groceries” as the accepted description for all manner of sexual relations. Soon, I’m sure, they’ll embellish the euphemism with even more detail, including side-trip definitions for a quick trip to the market, or Sample Saturdays. I blush to consider the possibilities, but that might make them happier than anything. It isn’t easy to get their crazy old mother to blush.

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