Tuesday, 15 February 2011


I am the sort of person who inevitably puts her finger through the bog roll of life and doesn't come up smelling of roses. Many years ago, I invented a word - orapedology, from the Latin words for foot and mouth - to describe the act of opening one's mouth and putting one's foot in it.

My worst faux-pas still live with me. Every so often I re-examine them and am drenched in shame all over again. The time I introduced somebody's very nice second wife by the name of the universally hated first one, after telling myself over and over again, 'Whatever you do, don't call her Julie'. The time back in the Sixties, when there was a vogue for using the word 'spastic' to describe something bad; "That joke was so spastic!" I declaimed loudly in the university refectory, only to turn round and discover, sitting right behind me, our greatly admired Poetry lecturer who suffered from cerebral palsy. The time when, aged 17 and on a school trip to Paris, I got lost and, showing off my mastery of the French language, confidently informed a gendarme that I had lost, not my bearings, but my virginity, whereupon he abandoned his traffic-directing, placed a fatherly arm around my shoulders and took my bewildered teenage self for a coffee. (Yes, I did eventually find my way back to the Lycee Henri-Quatre.)

But there is one thing that is even worse than being an accidental orapedologist and that is doing it deliberately, in the style of Dynasty's Alexis (good old Joan!). A friend of mine still burns with the injustice of the way she was greeted by the mother of a schoolfriend, who she hadn't seen for 20-odd years. First, there was a squint down a pair of invisible pince-nez, followed by a vague shake of the head, as if to recover a distant memory, and finally, the devastating put-down: "Margaret? Hmm... Oh yes, Margaret. Of course! You used to be the pretty one."

Mothers can be the worst of all, though, when it comes to putting down members of their family. When I was in my early 40s, I decided to get my ginger locks dyed the same shade of vibrant red they had been in my childhood. I even took the hairdresser a lock of hair I had saved since I had my pre-uni hair-cut at 18, so he could match it up. I was in a good job at the time, and had bought myself a super-trendy designer jacket and was looking forward to impressing Mum and showing her I had smartened up my image from the denim-clad hippie she was used to.

Mum said nothing when I arrived, but bustled around making tea, as mums do. She saved up her master-stroke for three days, until I was leaving. As I stood on the doorstep with Dad, who was accompanying me to the station, she spoke these words which have stayed with me ever since: "When you arrived, I didn't recognise you. I saw you coming and thought, 'Who's the fat, middle-aged woman with dyed hair and a shrunken jacket, who's coming over the railway bridge with Dad?'"

The jacket went into the charity shop bag as soon as I got home, and I let the colour fade out. Next time I went home, it was in jeans and a sweatshirt, and she never said another word about my image, ever again. Maybe she wanted to think of me as the eternal guitar-strumming teenager rather than the middle-aged daughter I had grown into. I have tried to find a reason and a way of forgiving her, but no; I can't and I won't. That wasn't orapedology, it was... well, is there a word for it? Maybe it's time to invent another.


Teresa Ashby said...

I love that word! I'm always doing it - foot in mouth, but never deliberately. I've been on the receiving end of plenty of those deliberate put downs over the years and I know how much they hurt and how they stick with you forever.

I love that the gendarme took you off for a coffee - what a lovely man!

hydra said...

I was mortified when I repeated what I'd told him to my French teacher, who burst out laughing and enlightened me as to what I had really said! He was a very kindly man, obviously mistaking my anxiety about being lost for getting emotional after losing my cherry!!!

Frances Garrood said...

Please forgive your poor mother. That's what mothers do. My daughter has never quite forgiven me for describing one of her boyfriends as repulsive. I know. It was an awful thing to say, and I knew it as soon as the words had left my mouth. But I did wait until she'd finished with him...

By the way, my sister has cerebral palsy, and refuses to call herself anything other than a spastic. That, she says, is what she is.

hydra said...

My partner frequently offends people by calling himself a 'spaz' following his two strokes. People really tell him off about it, but he carries on regardless. My mother was cruel but unerringly right about my boyfriends. Of one, she said, 'Don't trust him, his eyes are too close together'. He was the first boy I slept with, in my first year at Uni, and I found out he was still sleeping with his ex behind my back. I was heartbroken. I never told Mum when I got married, and never told her when I got divorced. We used to visit my parents as a married couple, and sleep in separate bedrooms!!! I must write my life story sometime. Secret marriage, secret daughter, no-one would believe it.