The “Oops” Moment: A Tale of Two Grandmothers
By Mary Donaldson-Evans
My daughter reproached me the other day for teaching her four year-old daughter Sophie a jump rope song that I had learned as a kid:
“Standing on a corner,
Chewing Bubble Gum
Along came Susie
And asked for some
Well, you dirty dirty beggar
Well, you dirty dirty bum
You can’t have any
‘Cause you asked for some.”
It was a schoolyard thing, and it required a long jump rope and a bunch of little girls. Two at a time, we turned that rope, one on each end, as we sang the song, and a steady stream of friends followed one another into the turning rope as their names were called (Susie, Sandy, Bonnie, etc.), staying in for a couple of revolutions and exiting at the end of the ditty. We never really thought about the words. Nor did the words “beggar” and “bum” have much meaning for us in our small city in northern Minnesota. There weren’t a lot of vagrants in those days, except in the bowery, a small area west of the downtown, where drunks tended to hang out. We lived on the outskirts of town and never went downtown without our parents, and then only to the nicer parts of town, where department stores catered to reasonably affluent shoppers, so the bowery might as well have been in China for all the direct experience we had of it.
We did know that there were some people—men, mostly—who drank too much whiskey and didn’t have jobs and had to beg for their food. Such men—we referred to them as “beggars” or “bums”—wore tattered clothes and didn’t bathe.
We didn’t really think about them as we sang our song. I guess the idea was that you should buy your bubble gum with your allowance and that you shouldn’t be asking your friends for theirs. Schoolyard principles. Later, the friend who always “bummed” cigarettes would be subject to our disapproval, but the jump-roping days were long gone by then.
Funny how that old song came back to me many decades later. Not so funny my daughter’s reaction.
“Mom! Don’t teach Sophie those words,” she said, after the game was over and my granddaughter was napping, no doubt dreaming of bubble gum and beggars.
“Which words?” I asked.
“Dirty beggar, “ she said, frowning. “Dirty bum.”
“Really? Why not?” I asked.
“Because we need to teach our kids to pity homeless people, not to judge them.”
Oh boy. My daughter, still a kid in my eyes, was teaching me a lesson.
I had forgotten that this was a kid who had spent nearly two decades of her life in New York City, a kid who stepped over vagrants on the street and in the subway each day on her way to work. This was a kid who had grown up in the era of political correctness where you call a spade a shovel and a mass murderer a “perpetrator.” This was a kid who had been taught—by me and her father—that the poor were not always responsible for their poverty, that society needed to find ways to help addicts and alcoholics, that each of us had a duty to do our part, whether it be by serving meals in homeless shelters, by ringing the Salvation Army bell at Christmastime, or simply by treating street people with compassion.
“There but for the grace of God go I!” was a refrain in our house.
When did I relinquish my role as mother? When did I move to the receiving end of maternal wisdom? In short, when did I become my daughter’s child?
I acquiesced, of course. I was in her house and this was her daughter. Just as I’ve learned not to criticize her parenting (“What? You’re giving my granddaughter mac ‘n cheese again?”), so I’ve accepted the fact that she makes the rules. The jump-rope song would change.
But I smiled to myself when I thought of what I considered her over-reaction, because where infractions were concerned, my own mother-in-law (May She Rest in Peace) took the cake many years ago.
It was a rainy June day in Newcastle, Australia. The year was 1980, and my Australian husband and I had left our then nine year-old daughter and 4 year-old son in Nan’s care while we went shopping. Nan was wonderfully inventive where children’s games were concerned, but on this particular day—perhaps it was the weather—she was tired and decided to opt for an easy solution to their boredom: they’d go to the movies!
She opened the newspaper to see what was playing downtown, and a theatre that the family had frequented weekly when her own children were little caught her eye. In the days before television, “The Tatler” had been known for its newsreels, documentaries and cartoons. She didn’t recognize the name of the film that was showing there, but her recollection of the old days was so strong that—amazingly—she didn’t bother to check it out. The start-time was perfect, mid-afternoon. She bundled the kids up in their rain gear—June is a winter month in Australia and the penetrating dampness of the drizzly days can be very uncomfortable—and they set out for the theater.
At this theatre, there was a single admission price, and seats were not discounted for children. The sleepy ticket agent barely looked up from the novel she was reading when Nan asked for three tickets. She slid three pairs of 3-D glasses under the glass barrier and went back to her book. What fun! thought Nan. A 3-D movie! The children would love it. The film was billed as a Western. Nan hoped there wouldn’t be any violent shoot-outs.
She guided the children down the dark aisle and pushed them into a row in the middle of the theatre. The lights were very dim, but a quick look around revealed few patrons, lone men mostly, scattered throughout the theatre.
Nan helped the children adjust their glasses and they settled back to wait for the feature to begin.
The film began innocently enough, with a man in a cowboy hat riding his horse into a small town and stopping in front of a saloon. However, about five minutes into the film, the camera cut to a scantly clad couple lying on a bed. What’s going on? thought Nan, suddenly horror-struck. The soundtrack answered her with moans and shrieks. On the screen, close-ups of hands moving over bare breasts. “Oh! Oh!” cried Nan, gasping for breath and clutching her chest. She leaned over to the children. “We have to leave!” she hissed, then she seized their small hands, yanked them from their seats and pulled them out of the theatre, her legs nearly buckling under her with the sheer shock of it all.
I realize that this sounds improbable. How was it possible that my trusted mother-in-law would take our children to a film without knowing that it was X-rated? How unlikely was it that the ticket agent wouldn’t notice that she was accompanied by children? My husband and I shook our heads in disbelief when we learned of Nan’s “oops!” moment. Our oh-so-prim-and-proper mum, who wore her hair in a sensible bun, who never ever uttered a vulgar word or entertained an unseemly thought, had taken our kids to an X-rated Western! To this day, our now grown children remember the experience of being dragged out of the theatre, their 3-D glasses still on, looking back at the screen until the doors had closed behind them and they were once again in the lobby.
“Did you hear about the time that Nan took the kids to a porn flic?” Friends and family never fail to gasp, then to laugh, when they hear this family favorite.
But I ask you, which involuntary infraction has the most potential to rob young children of their innocence, teaching them a politically incorrect jump-rope song or taking them to a quasi-pornographic movie?
I rest my case.
I have a granddaughter (4 years old) and a grandson (2) and am still learning the ropes of grandparenting with help (thank you!) from your wonderful magazine.