I discovered the F-bomb the summer I turned 12. I dropped it indiscriminately, but initially just among my peers. We all did. What better way to add a point of emphasis?

The F-bomb as an adjective, exclamation point, noun and verb, but never as an adverb. Mix in some other swears, and there was nothing I couldn’t describe or react to without a colorful flourish. Emboldened, I began using it during interactions with my older and younger sisters, careful so my parents and grandparents didn’t catch me – playing cards, riding our bikes to Barrows’ store on errands for our grandmother or just jostling around the house. My sisters just cringed, recoiled and rolled their eyes in disgust. I was hooked. It was getting under their skin.

During a particularly intense card game of Rummy 500 with my sisters on the sleeping porch of our grandparents’ North Ferrisburgh, Vermont, camp, I let loose a string of expletives, including several versions of the F-bomb. It was a spontaneous and loud eruption in response to an acute loss in the course of the game.

My grandmother heard. Game over. She called me into the kitchen where she stood before the stove. This was not the “I have just baked some delicious chocolate zucchini bread, come on in and have a slice” voice. Shuffling in with my head down, I was commanded to look her square in her sharp blue eyes. An awkward silence ensued, broken only after she finished wiping her hands on her apron. “Robert Brooks Bernheim, I will NOT tolerate such language in my house! Do you understand?!”

The chastisement worked for a few days. But I really didn’t put a governor on my tongue; I was just more discreet. I found it somewhat hypocritical that my father and older cousins, among others, could engage in prolific swearing to describe everything from President Ford’s foreign and domestic policies to the delightful taste of the University of Vermont Creamery’s ice cream on a humid night along the shores of Lake Champlain (this was before Ben & Jerry’s arrived on the scene). And all of this in the presence of my grandmother. Wasn’t being 12 old enough to say what I wanted in the way I wanted to? What was the big deal, anyway? They’re just words.

Within the week my grandmother called me again to the kitchen. Removing her apron, she simply asked me to please gather the trash, garbage and returnables and put them in the car. We were going for a ride. I breathed a sigh of relief; I had dodged another moment of reckoning. Her station wagon, born during the heyday of Pittsburgh steel and Detroit V-8 power, was as formidable as she was. Faux wood paneling, crank-down windows with dodgy AC and an expansive vinyl bench seat across the front, it was nonetheless steady and powerful. She asked me to place a bag of trash next to her. Strange, but not uncommon as we appeared headed for the dump and then the store to collect the deposits on her returnables.


The picture postcard scenery of the Champlain Valley arrested my attention out the window – the majestic Green Mountains with a brief glimpse of the distinctive Camel’s Hump to the east and the ancient rolling Adirondacks rising from the lake to the west with a carpet of pasture replete with grazing Holsteins, farmhouses and silos dotting the in-between. We often drove in such silent appreciation of the landscape of her birth. It was a scene that had changed little since her youth.

Without a word she began to roll down her window. Shocked, I turned sharply to see if maybe she was shooing a deer fly out the window. My grandmother rarely rode with the windows down. She had coiffed gray-blue hair that sat like a helmet on her head. Too much wind in the car and her hair would need a new setting. She then reached into the bag next to her and started hurling trash, empty cans and garbage out the window as we approached the railroad tracks and Barrows’ store. I almost exclaimed, “WTF!” But I was truly at a loss for words. As she kept at it, I managed to finally ask, “What are you doing!?”

Calmly, she put her directional on and pulled the massive wagon to the side of the road lined once upon a time with Dutch elms. Slipping the transmission to park, she slowly turned to face me and simply remarked, “Robert, in the same way that I was littering just now, so too do your words pollute the landscape of my home when you swear. I do not ever want to hear you swear again. Now get out, pick up the litter and let’s go to the dump where trash belongs.”

With that, I did just as she asked.

Her lesson that day has stuck with me for more than four decades and even informs how I parent and teach. Sure, I occasionally let loose a string of expletives when I get upset or to add a point of emphasis. I repeat my father’s F-bombs dropped in the throes of Alzheimer’s as part of a retelling of his behavior to my sisters, wife and our daughters. But that episode on the Long Point Road indelibly altered my vocabulary, and challenged me to find other ways to express myself.

Truly, words matter.

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