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Danny and his mom, Gloria Heitman McCarthy

As another Mother’s Day arrives, I’ve been thinking of a call I got from my mother a few years before she died in 2008.

She was phoning with urgent news — or at least news she thought was urgent. She’d been driving along Main Street in our hometown, preparing to turn near the parish church, when she spotted a bumper sticker on the car in front of her.

“It said 'it happens'," my mother told me, “except it was that nasty, four-letter word that rhymes with it.”

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To make sure I’d fully grasped her meaning, my mother spelled out the expletive she’d just seen in small-town traffic. I was then in my 40s, but she still felt compelled to shield me from the full brunt of the language that had assaulted her. Doling out the letters one at a time, she assumed, would spare me the indignity she’d just suffered behind the wheel.

I was somewhat familiar, of course, with the word on the bumper sticker that had rattled my mother. It’s possible that the word had been uttered around the newsroom from time to time, maybe even on the morning my mother had called.

I wasn’t quite sure what Mama intended for me to do with her observation, although I sensed that she wanted her son, a journalist, to take note of the fact that the country had now changed, and not for the better.

It was one thing, she figured, to say something nasty in a fit of anger. But what she’d witnessed was different. Someone had taken language so bad it couldn’t be uttered on the radio, then carefully pasted it on his automobile so that everyone could see it.

Could it be that there were millions of “it happens” bumper stickers stuck on cars and trucks across America? It was a possibility my mother wasn’t ready to confront.

“People do crazy things, Mama,” I vaguely responded. “I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

She was far from the village prude. Mama was warm and funny, sometimes wryly irreverent. But the English language meant something to her. Gutter talk, by her measure, showed not just a lack of taste or morality, but a lack of imagination.

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As a young woman, she’d gotten a teaching award to be presented at a statewide banquet with then-Gov. Earl Long as the featured speaker. When Long, perhaps deep in his cups, opened his remarks with a filthy anecdote, my mother rose from the table and walked out. It was unthinkable to her that any leader could debase himself — and those he represented — by resorting to the rhetorical pigpen. Were she still around, she’d be even more grieved to learn that the sitting president of the United States had uttered the “it” word from his podium.

I miss Mama and the standards she stood for. They seem to have gone to the grave with her.

 


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.