Billy Coffey
Billy Coffey

The power of a single word

July 12, 2012  

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Last night, my son and I alone in the truck, running an errand:



“You know about cards?”

“What cards?”

“You know, like birthday cards?”

“Sure,” I said.

I looked in the rearview mirror. He was seated directly behind me, his face turned out of the window and toward the mountains, where the setting sun cast his tanned face in a red glow. Sometimes I do that with my kids—just look at them. I’ll look at them now and I’ll try to remember them as they were and try to imagine them as they will be.

“What about them?” I asked. “The cards.”

He didn’t hear me. Or maybe he wasn’t going to say. Sometimes my kids (any kids) are like that. Their conversations begin and end in their own minds, and we are allowed only tiny windows into their thoughts.

“Do you like Target?” he asked.


“Don’t ever buy cards at Target, Dad.”

“Why’s that?”

“They’re inappropriate.”

Another look into the mirror. His face was still toward the mountains, still that summer red. But there was a look to him that said he was turning something large and heavy over in his head, thinking on things.

“Why are they inappropriate?”

“They’re bad,” he said. “On a lot of them, do you know what they have?”

“What’s that?”


“They have butts on the cards?”

“Yeah. Big ones.”

Silence. More driving. I thought that little talk is over. I kind of hoped it was. I didn’t know where it was all going. I was pretty sure that was a ride I didn’t want to go on.

Then, “Do you know what else they have besides big butts?”


“Bad words.”

“That a fact?”


He likes that word, my son. Surely. Uses it all the time. And upon such occasions I like to say, “Don’t call me Surely.” I did then, too. There was no effect. Still toward the mountains, still the red glow. Still turning things over. I tried turning the radio up, found a song he liked. Whistled. Anything to stop that encroaching train wreck of conversation.

“Really bad words,” he said.

“Bad words aren’t good.”


I had him then. Conversation settled.

Then, “A-s-s.”


“That’s what the cards have on them. A-s-s.”

“Don’t think I like that,” I said.

“Me, neither,” he said.

I looked in the mirror one more time. He still faced outside, out in the world, and in his tiny profile I saw the babe he was and the boy he is and the man he would be. Saw it all in that one moment, all of his possibilities and all of his faults, how high he would climb and how low he could fall.

He looked out, and in a voice meant only for himself and one I barely heard, he whispered,


And there was a smile then, faint but there, as the taste of that one vowel and two consonants fell over his lips. It was a taste both sweet and sour, one that lowered him and raised him, too.

I could have scolded him. Should have, maybe. But I didn’t. We rode on together, talking about anything but asses. Sometimes one lesson must be postponed in favor of another. And last night, right or wrong, I decided that more important than teaching my son what to say was letting him discover alone the awesome power of a single word.

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13 Responses to “The power of a single word”

  1. Awe…that is the sweetest. Love little boy talk. I miss that with my boy he has outgrown little boy talk and now we have teen boy grunts.

  2. Eileen says:

    Beautiful! I love these car conversations with my 8 year old son. And, I sometimes just stare at him too. Time seems to stand still briefly when I do.

  3. That may be one of the cutest little stories I’ve read in a while. 😀

  4. rain says:

    such grace is really what it is.

  5. With three little ones of my own, I always appreciate hearing how other parents handle sticky topics.

  6. Kelly Sauer says:

    You see people like I do. You just dare more than I – I take a picture of the moment; you use words to tell their story. This – I could SEE it, and see you seeing him as a person, things that photographs can’t ever really tell. Incredible.

  7. katdish says:

    “Ass” Okay, that cracked me up.

  8. Sharon O says:

    I love mini conversations. My grand daugher one time saw a sign for a fortune teller and a palm reader and we had a wonderful mini conversation about how, “no one knows your future even those who try to decieve you into giving them money in the hopes they could tell you something you don’t know”. It was a powerful mini message and she learned to pray for them and you know what? they moved away. (I often wonder if they ‘knew’ where they were going) :o}

  9. Hazel Moon says:

    Hey which Target has cards like that? I get my cards at the dollar store and haven’t seen any that are inappropriate. Your son has found a word that rolled well in his relating of his thoughts to you. Perhaps not the worst of words to use but a necessary one to let you know how he felt on the submect.

  10. It is about the power of a word, isn’t it? Because that word might be just right at one moment, and completely inappropriate at another.

  11. I can’t imagine going through conversations with my kids (When I have them), but I know its hard to know what to say and what to do. Hopefully, he likes the word butt more than ass, but I am sure that you will soon find out which one his likes more. At least he found the word in a good sense, you know? He knows that it is a body part. Most people use it as a way to hurt another person and their feelings.

    Great story though! ( :

  12. […] The power of a single word – Billy Coffey […]

  13. Still remember the first time I cussed in front of my mother. Was tattling on my brother, only I called him and his friends, “those damn boys”. My mother laughed.

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