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Be memorable.  That had been Neanderdad’s parenting goal that day.  It was, perhaps, a bit self-serving.  But that was his goal nonetheless.  So he had taken his daughter on a special trip to the riding stables to feed carrots to the horses.  She talked about it glowingly for the rest of the day as if it perhaps would be a lasting memory.  For the boy, it had been batting practice with the tee.  His swing was developing quite impressively.  Neanderdad had been out there for a long time, patiently coaching him.  Perhaps the boy wouldn’t remember these specific lessons, but someday that swing would shine under the lights and he might vaguely recall his dear old dad’s involvement.  Such were Neanderdad’s fantasies, anyway.  

The root of Neanderdad’s desires grew from a simple realization.  In anticipation of the arrival of Neanderdad’s own parents for a visit, he had tried to think of his early memories with them, to compare with his own parenting interactions.  Unfortunately, he soon realized that nothing rattling around in his shaggy head came from his life before the age of 4.  And because the girl was 4 and the boy was under 3, Neanderdad came to the depressing conclusion that his children would remember nothing about him from this time.  It was a devastating thought given the effort invested.  So Neanderdad had set out that morning to prove this theory wrong with the application of greater effort.  Now, after a long day, he felt like he had.

As he read Sam McBratney’s “Guess How Much I Love You” to his sleepy, pajama-clad offspring, Neanderdad breathed a deep breath of accomplishment.  It had indeed been a day to remember.  Pride flowed through him like a river.  Even the dog, usually nervous and edgy, was curled quietly on the rug nearby, seemingly sharing in his contentment.  Unfortunately for Neanderdad, however, attempting to challenge the prevailing nature of things is frowned upon and he was therefore marked for humbling.

Neanderdad’s humbling started with a small itch to the nose of the boy.  So itched, the boy shoved the book he was holding onto the nightstand so he could better scratch that nose.  His discarded book, in turn, disturbed the stack of books already occupying the night stand, causing an avalanche.  This avalanche of books then swept up the neighboring plastic humidifier, knocking it off the night stand and onto the floor in a calamity of geysering water and whipping electrical cable.  The avalanching books then continued to cascade down, plopping one by one into the newly formed puddle.  Finally, the dog, far too close to this disaster, yelped away in terror, trailing wet footprints out the door and down the hallway.

“&%$#@&!” Neanderdad roared, upset at the disruption of his blissful moment of self-satisfaction.  He was also more than a little bit afraid that there would be an electrocution.  He quickly leapt up to unplug the humidifier and salvage the books from the growing puddle.  Then he snatched up the humidifier and evacuated it from the room with a growl.   The dog, which had started to creep back into the room again, fled before Neanderdad’s rage.

Neanderdad flung the cursed humidifier out the front door.  Then he angrily snatched towels for mopping up spilled water and paw prints.  It was only as he returned down the hallway, as he approached the bedroom door, as his anger was receding, that the magnitude of his parental humbling was made fully aware to him.

“*&%$#@&!,” he heard the girl say to the boy.

“*&%$#@&!,” he heard the boy respond.

The two children were standing on the bed and staring down at the pool of humidifier water.  They looked up to meet his gaze.  Then, without a hint of comprehension, they repeated the phrase they had been practicing in his absence with dead-pan incomprehension.

“*&%$#@&!,” they said in perfect unison.

“Shhhh,” urged Neanderdad, shaking his head in an unsuccessful bid to stop them.

“What’s *&%$#@& mean?”  his daughter asked.

“What *&%$#@& mean?” said the boy.

Neanderdad shushed them again as he toweled up the water and gestured for them to lie back down on the bed.

“*&%$#@&,” the girl said again.

“*&%$#@&,” inflected the boy, clearly trying to match Neanderdad’s exact enunciation.

“*&%$#@&,” thought Neanderdad.  Were the children ever going to stop saying the word?  Any residual confidence in his parenting had now evaporated.  He surveyed the wreckage of the bedtime routine and strategized about stopping the children’s parroting of his profanity. He hesitated to scold.   First, the hypocrisy of such an act was not lost on him.  Second, he was fearful of imprinting more firmly the forbidden nature—and therefore the delicious appeal—of the curse.  So instead he embarked on a strategy of diversion.  He enticed them with more books.  He recounted stories bombastically.  He employed laser pointers to dazzle them with a light show.  His was a desperate display of distractive parenting.   Yet despite his efforts, any small pause or break in the entertainment was quickly filled with their same commentary.

“*&%$#@&,” the girl would say.

“*&%$#@&,” the boy would repeat.

This went on for quite a while, and Neanderdad mentally flagellated himself for his foul mouth.  But eventually, like ripples in a pond, these episodes died out, and Neanderdad managed to get his children back into the bedtime routine and finally to sleep.  When Neanderdad reluctantly slouched down the hallway to the kitchen, he suffered his wife’s half-sarcastic, half-incredulous smile.  Though she sympathetically confessed that she was glad he had crossed the profanity line with the children first, it did not make Neanderdad feel any better.   His goal of memorability had now become a mockery of itself.  He resigned himself to the idea that his obscenity would indeed be remembered and probably become an integral part of his children’s vocabulary.

But a surprising thing happened.  The next morning, the children made no mention of the word.  And as the days passed, Neanderdad was overwhelmed with relief when it didn’t come up again.  Life went on. Neanderdad’s confidence again returned. And with the arrival of the grandparents, he was relieved to conclude that the whole episode was forgotten.

Well, it was almost forgotten.  For as the boy and girl chattered urgently at breakfast with their grandparents about such consequentialities as  rubber rainboots,  Grandneanderdad excused himself from the table to retrieve a bagel from the toaster.  Burdened with a piping-hot cup of coffee and the unfamiliar terrain of an obstacle-laden dining area, Grandneanderdad tripped on the crouching dog and spilled the hot liquid on the floor.  Before anyone could react, and certainly before he could properly consider his audience, Grandneanderdad vocalized his frustration.

“*&%$#@&,” Grandneanderdad barked.

There was utter silence.  Then, as the dog yelped away from another drenching, and Grandneandermom gasped in surprise, the children’s eyes shot open wide in recognition.  As their tiny mouths quickly proceeded to parrot Grandneanderdad’s utterance in perfect, practiced unison, Neanderdad realized that perhaps there was something his father had taught him before the age of 4 that he remembered after all.

As first published on Lisa Belkin’s NY Times Motherlode on Feb 8, 2011