Years ago, when our two daughters were still in elementary school, my wife and I encountered a moment of truth with them—one of those things that never seems to arise in the privacy and sanctity of one’s own home. Children are too diabolical to let that happen.
We were out for dinner, treating them to a white-tablecloth dinner in a fine restaurant in our neighbourhood. Part of our strategy to introduce them to the niceties of life, we hoped it also would serve as an opportunity to educate them in the proper manners and etiquette such occasions demanded. No other children were present, and I smugly complimented myself on the loving family picture we must have presented.
Our table sat amidst several others, nicely spaced, but close enough to require moderated tones while speaking. We all had ordered, the girls speaking directly with the server, being sure to say please and thank you as required, and the evening was going splendidly.
Then my eldest daughter dropped the bomb.
“Daddy,” she said (more loudly than necessary, it seemed to me), “what does the f-word mean?”
Even as the blood rushed to my ears, it couldn’t drown out the sound of dropped cutlery clattering on plates from the tables around us. I resisted the urge to check how many pairs of eyes must be staring at us.
“What?” I said, stupidly, since the last thing I wanted was for her to repeat her question.
“I said, what does…”
“I heard you, I heard you,” I interrupted. “Please lower your voice.”
No one spoke for a moment or two. Our fellow-diners appeared to resume their own conversations, though hoping, I was sure, to hear how I might respond.
My wife was the first to break the silence. “What f-word?” she asked. “There are a lot of words starting with ‘f’.”
I stared at her, aghast. What could she be thinking? Surely she didn’t want our daughter to say the word out loud in a crowded restaurant.
The two girls glanced sidelong at each other, almost furtively, nervous smiles on their faces. The youngest shrugged her shoulders slightly.
“Umm, I guess I forget the word,” the eldest replied.
“That’s okay,” my wife said nonchalantly. “But if you think of it another time, you can ask us again.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for my savvy wife’s realization that such a sweet child would be unwilling to actually utter the word.
Emboldened by her success, I added bravely, “Yeah, and when you tell us the word, we’ll tell you what it means.” I immediately winced from my wife’s kick under the table.
The rest of the meal passed in peace as we engaged in casual conversation, laughed at the girls’ stories of their activities at school, and discussed our choices for dessert. But just as our selections were served, my daughter spoke up again. Too loudly again.
“Daddy, I remember the f-word!”
I dropped my spoon, splattering chocolate pudding on my tie.
“The…the what?” I uttered lamely, dabbing at the stains with my napkin, spreading them wider.
“The f-word,” she repeated. “You said if I could remember it, you’d tell us what it means.”
My wife smiled sweetly, abandoning me to the course I had set myself.
Stalling for time, I surveyed the room around us, noting how people quickly averted their gazes. One or two appeared to be laughing into their napkins.
“Yeah, okay,” I finally said. “I guess I did. But when you tell me, talk quietly. We don’t want to bother other people, right?”
She nodded solemnly.
“So, what’s the word?” I heard myself ask, confident now that I could handle this. I was beginning to feel like SuperDad.
With another glance at her sister, my daughter blurted out, “Fart!”
“Fart?” I echoed, hearing the now-audible laughter from other diners. My relief about the choice of word was immense, given the alternative, but not for long. “Where did you hear that word?”
“At school,” she replied. “Lots of kids say it.”
I realized that now my wife, too, had her face buried in her napkin.
“Oh,” I said, trying to maintain some semblance of control of the situation. “Well, fart is not a word that nice people like us use.”
“Yeah, but what does it mean?” my daughter persisted.
“Well…it refers to…to the gas…you know…the smell that sometimes comes from your bottom. When you’re sitting on the toilet, for instance.”
With a shriek of laughter, my youngest daughter cried, “Oh, I get it! When you do it, it makes a loud noise, and you call it a tinkie, Daddy. Right?”
Blushing furiously now, I said, “Right, right. But that’s just what we call it in our family. Not everybody calls it a tinkie. Probably every different family has their own word for it.”
There followed another few moments of silence at our table, save for my wife’s choked chuckles into her napkin.
“But Daddy,” my eldest daughter said, “if we say tinkie to anybody else, they won’t know what we mean. Does that mean we should say fart?”
“No,” I replied firmly, “you should not say fart. You should probably not talk about it at all. But if you have to say something, just say passing gas. That’s all it really is, anyway. Nice people don’t say fart.”
And that was the end of it. Both girls seemed satisfied, and it didn’t come up again.
On the way out—with me clutching my jacket closed to hide the chocolate smear on my tie—we passed a table where a neighbour from our street was sitting with his wife. I nodded politely, hoping to avoid any embarrassing conversation. But I had to stop momentarily when he held up his hand, then beckoned me closer.
“Tinkie?” he said.