You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
— Exodus 20:7
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
— Ephesians 4:29
My mother would not be happy I am telling this story. Our family lived under the continual cloud of “what-would-people-think?” I spent much of my adult life, and perhaps some of my childhood trying to untangle the threads of my mother’s insecurities.
I grew up in La Grande, Oregon. To the east was Baker (now Baker City), to the west was Pendleton, and further west was Portland, Oregon City, and McMinnville. Almost all of our travels were west. The trip from La Grande to Pendleton was approximately one hour. From the freeway outside Pendleton you could see large brown rectangles that comprised the Oregon State Mental Institute. (It was eventually where Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed.) In the course of the hour trip west, somewhere on Cabbage Hill, my mother’s insecurities would boil over and with consummate timing say, “You might as well stop the car and let me off at the Nut House …” I would glance out the windows of our Rambler station wagon at the brown rectangles looming shadowy in the distance. On several occasions it seemed as if my father would slow the car in a mock effort to accommodate her.
Another area where my mother’s insecurities lay close to the surface was her fear of policemen. Which is ironic because my brother Justin grew up to become a policeman. Justin and I would sit in the backseat and mimic the sound of a police siren. Our nasal “errrrrrrrrs” would start softly and continue to rise and fall. We would try to stifle our laughter when saying from the backseat, “Uh oh! They’re coming to get us!” My mother would shriek and turn to look. My father would say without turning, “You boys stop that. You know it bothers your mother.” Sometimes mom would actually cry.
My father was a traveling salesman of sorts. I say “of sorts” because he was not very good at it. His greatest joy was the “traveling” part of “traveling salesman.” His route covered every small town in eastern Oregon and most of Washington. In the summertime I was forced to accompany he and my mother on these sales trips. I did not like car travel and expressed my displeasure by frequently getting carsick. The only distraction I had on these trips was reading and in a moving car was instant source of carsickness for me. I sometimes would make my father stop the car or sometimes I would simply roll down the window and vomit while the car was in motion. We would clean up the car at the next stop or when we got home.
If my mother was cursed with insecurities and fears, my father was blessed with an inner thought life that kept him entertained but distracted. It was not uncommon while driving in downtown Portland for my father to turn onto a one-way street or simply become lost with a single wrong turn.
One summer I found myself with my father and mother in the little town of Joseph, Oregon. It was a town so small that there was a single traffic light and one traffic sign that said, “No Left Turn.” I am moment of distraction my father turned left. This violation resulted in a nasal “errrrrrrrrrrr.” Only this time it was a real policeman and his real siren pulling my father over. My mother shrieked, “What did you do? What did you do, Homer?”
My mother did not tolerate swearing by her children and she only allowed herself two colorful phrases: “ding bust It” and “Sam Hill” When my father rolled down the window to talk to the officer my mother leaned across him and assaulted him with a variety of “ding bust its” and Sam Hills. “What in the Sam Hill did you stop us for? We didn’t do anything, ding bust it!” Before the officer had time to formulate a response my mother had bounded from the car and gone over to the patrol car. She knelt by one of the tires and was muttering a string of “ding bust its” and “Sam Hills.” I was now somewhat curious as to what she was doing. The policeman, my father, and I looked on in disbelief. There was not a trace of amusement in our faces. My mother was struggling to remove the small protective cap from the stem of the policeman’s tire. And once that was done she frantically and with dogged determination sought a way to let air out of the man’s tire. As she struggled amid the rising dust and mild invectives I could no longer bear to watch. I slunk down in my seat to watch the officer’s reaction. He took the ticket that he had been writing and tore it in two. “It looks like you have enough problems of your own today, sir.”
The ride home was very quiet. I did not get car sick, which is not to say that I wasn’t sick. I was approximately thirteen on that day. Upon arriving home I went directly to my room, my sanctuary and sat on the edge of the bed. Soon my father came and sat next to me, “Your mother needs you to be mature. I am so proud of how mature you are!’ On the surface, that almost seems like a moment stolen directly from Andy and Opie or Ward and the Beaver, classic sixties’ television. It was actually the moment my childhood was taken from me, not maliciously, but nevertheless, taken.
The only time I heard my father swear was shortly after he had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was in a Portland hospital and my mother’s sister Betty had come to see him. She was waiting outside the room. “Tell her to go the hell away. I don’t want to see anyone right now, damn it.”
When he confronted the fact that he was dying he told me, “I want to go live in a teepee on a mountain. I want to die alone in a teepee.” Instead he came to live with me.