Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Little Bit of Soap

Daniel Radosh, in his book Rapture Ready*, writes about Steeple Hill (a publisher of “inspirational”, i.e. Christian based, romance novels) issuing to its writers a list of taboo terms, including, “Geez/Jeez (can use ‘Sheesh’ instead)”. The reason for the taboo is obviously that those exclamations amount to taking the Lord’s name in vain; “Jeez” (sometimes spelled with a “G” when they messed up chiseling in a stone tablet) was the nickname favored for Jesus by his crew. His boy, P-Dog (later “Rock”) gave him that one, though P-Dog denied it thrice. This bit of Christian pop history was overlooked by Radosh in his book.
But I digress. The “Jeez – Sheesh” reference took me back to childhood. We lived in a neighborhood with several Catholic families. One of them, two doors down from us, had a girl and a boy near the age of my sister and me. Their mom would baby sit us while our mom was at work. This would later be known as “daycare”, though if this woman had been running an actual service, I would not have been (at 4 and 5 years old) running around loose with Jimmy Fox, the bad kid down the street. I would not have been on unsupervised excursions to smash Christmas lights in the street (the old-fashioned, big ones made a tremendous “pop”), steal playing cards from the drug store or poop in the backyard because we were locked out of the house.
But I digress; those stories can be told another day.
The dad in the Catholic babysitter family was at work most of the time, which was a blessing, because he was one angry, scary dude. If we were all eating together and one of the kids, his own or us, did or said something he didn’t like, he sucked the food off his fork, then used that saliva-laden utensil to whack the offending kid on top of the head. Occasionally he would get exasperated and utter some twisted command like “don’t chew with your mouth full” or “don’t talk with your mouth open.” Woe be unto the child that laughed at this, for the spit-washed fork would be upon his head! That’s not the scary part, though. When his kids did something really bad, there would be beatings – I can’t remember if he used a belt, a hairbrush, a stick or all three, I just remember the trembling fear that one day he might forget I was not his son and do the same to me, because he threatened exactly that.
Somewhere in between the semi-harmless spit-fork and the fierce beatings was the classic washing-the-mouth-out-with-soap. This was not reserved for their own kids; I tasted the business end of a bar of Ivory when I bit my sister in the back one day (I don’t remember what inspired that bite, but I remember the consequence still).
One day the four of us children were talking and laughing about something and their boy, Ray, said, “Sheesh.” Then he froze. The atmosphere that had been light and airy became dense and shrouded – suddenly his dad filled the room, dark and rumbling like a storm cloud. Ray was hustled away to chew on some soap and receive a whipping while his sister, Jeanne, explained to us that “sheesh” was just a substitute for “Jesus” and uttering it in vain merited the same damnation as using the Lord’s actual name (or his nickname, “Jeez”). I watched my mouth after that, and kept it closed. I assumed "Gosh” was forbidden but I wondered about “golly” and “goodness”, since “good” is derived from “God”. (Right, Bill?).
The whole thing has stuck in my mind all these years and was retriggered when Rapture Ready informed me that “sheesh” was allowed by the strict guidelines of Steeple Hill and not equivalent to "Jesus". I wish Ray’s dad were still alive and I could take that book and show him …. And whack him on the head with it, then make him EAT the goddamn thing whole. Jeez!

*Rapture Ready is a well-written, well-researched examination of Christian pop culture, both amusing and enlightening. Sheesh, it’s good!

Geez, please guide people to and make them vote for my bloggings.


Susan said...

Ah, Mr. L****. What a creep. It's even creepier when you have your own children and realize just how awful he must have been to treat his own kids like that. Plus he used to make me sit on his lap and then kiss me and run his tongue on my mouth. EWWWWWWWW!

Bill Brohaugh said...

Jeepers, JohnnyB! It's Saturday, and all I want to do is wander about the web reading funny blogs, and you put me to work. I'd refuse, but the last time I turned you down, all my outdoor Christmas lights exploded one night, and now I know why.

The words god and good actually rose from different roots, but you're on the right trail in an instance you don't mention. The "good" in goodbye is God, and the full word is a contraction of the phrase "God be with ye." Golly and gosh are indeed replacements for the word God.

Unrelated to the subject of your post but dead on in line with the storytelling within, I recommend a book called The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked, by David Benjamin. It's set in the same small town I grew up in--Tomah, Wisconsin. Benjamin's just a few years older than I am, so the playgrounds and ramshackle housing and turtle-infested creeks he recalls with such vivid detail and compassion are those that I blundered through in my childhood. Most important, Benjamin--as evinced by your definition of "babysitting"--captures a world in which parents were the privileged class and kids were the ones who were shooed out the screen door after lunch and not expected to be seen again until it was time for some supper before being released again to play statue tag in the dark. Kids were not allowed to be kids--they were forced to be kids, and forced to be independent. Why those kids grew up to be helicopter baby booming parents, I don't know.

Enjoy the read. And goshspeed.