'Chickenbutt' and Other Lessons from Grandma

My maiden Aunt Una — universally known to everyone as Nunna — was 75 when I was born. She lived with her youngest sister — my grandmother — for pretty much her entire adult life. They had what you'd call a problematic relationship. They argued over minor, ludicrous things incessantly: Who took the last of the cottage cheese? Is teal more like blue or more like green? When is Hee-Haw on? They bickered over everything. And they swore like longshoremen. I acquired a working knowledge of the most multivariate and polysyllabic foul language imaginable. My mother and father never, ever swore, except on one memorable occasion involving my dad, a carving knife and an especially tough-skinned pumpkin.

I spent a lot of time with Gran and Nunna when I was a child — I never in my life had a babysitter I was not related to — and their frankly deplorable language, for many years, was something I considered to be our little secret. I was convinced that if my mother learned that Gran and Nunna regularly had profane, obscene verbal pyrotechnics over which was better, chocolate or vanilla, I wouldn't get to go back. Which brings us up to the time, when I was maybe 8 or 9, when the jig was most assuredly and completely up.

My sister Amy and I were over at Gran's waiting for my mother to get back from the beauty parlor, where she got a permanent every week. Nunna was making our lunch, which was invariably egg salad on Wonder Bread, which she would serve to us with Ruffles potato chips on — if you can believe this — little Styrofoam trays that had at one time been used as the base of packaged meat. The bizarre little economies of people who lived through the Depression never cease to amaze me. Okay, well, we didn't die of food poisoning or E. coli, so I guess it's not that big a deal in retrospect, but seriously — I cannot imagine that the Board of Health would endorse this sort of thing. But that's what we did.

So, Nunna was fixing these sandwiches, and Gran came in the room, and something happened — maybe she burned her hand on the pot for the hard-boiled eggs, or maybe she thought the Ruffles were stale, whatever — and she started swearing a blue streak. It was at that precise moment that my mother, backcombed within an inch of her life and smelling powerfully of Climatress hairspray, walked into the kitchen. Gran shut right up, guiltily. And my mother, who'd heard about three of the 90 bad words in this particular scatological symphony, went bananas.

"I have had e-nough of you exposin' my children to your foul language!" she said.

"I will not tolerate it, not one more minute! You say one more bad word, Mother, and I am takin' these children outta here right this red-hot minute, and you are never gonna see them again, do I make myself clear?"

My grandmother weighed this information for about a sixth of a second before we heard this deep, deep intake of breath — she was clearly getting ready to expel something amazing, some kind of edifice of profanity the likes of which would be monumental, architectural, and dazzling in nature. But she couldn't dare let it out. It was just barely possible that my mother actually meant to spirit her grandchildren out of her life. She could not risk it.

"Well ... d — I mean ... sh — ffff — G — (deep breath) — well, chickenbutt."

My sister and I did what we would later learn is called a "spit-take."

We looked at my mom, who to her credit really does know when something is funny, and she was trying valiantly not to laugh, which would have spoiled the whole effect.

"Okay," said my mom. "I hope you will just think about what you have done, and how you're gonna react the next time you are angry, and that you will honor the Lord with your thoughts and deeds," to which my sister and I assiduously looked away from each other so that we wouldn't crack up. My grandmother apologized. Nunna glared at Gran. Mom herded us out the door, radiating dignified injury. As we shut the door behind us, I could hear Nunna say, "where in the hell did you come up with chickenbutt? 'Cause I'm gonna use that."

Commentator Laura Lorson is the very picture of verbal rectitude. She lives in Perry, Kan.

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