My father was a practiced hand at a technique I call the two-fer, whereby he could simultaneously embarrass a guest, and with the same remark, mortify his children. "Do children behave like this where you come from?" he would ask. "Have you ever heard of this?" (Refusing food, making plans with friends, declining to be the musical entertainment, and so forth). The polite guest would shrug helplessly, as if to say, "On my home planet, children are delighted to sit quietly and observe elders conversing," or God forbid, "I have heard of children watching TV, now that you mention it." Once, apropos of nothing, my dad exclaimed to a visitor, "Do you know the word 'booger'?" Our guest, a German speaker, allowed that he did not. Case closed.
Now I am the constant victim of the "reverse two-fer," as artfully practiced by Jeff. It works like this: Jeff can deftly embarrass me and render another adult speechless at the same time. For this mother, practiced in the parental technique of redirection, I can say that redirection works only with children small enough to maneuver away from ground zero of social devastation.
This summer, I misunderstood a party invitation, so Jeff and I showed up a week early. It could have been a social learning experience: apologize briefly and sincerely, then beat a hasty retreat. Only Jeff wouldn't have it. "I am so sorry, it's my mistake," I said, when the hosts came to the door in their lounge-around-the-house-on-the-weekend clothes. "Can I come in?" Jeff offered, brightly. "Jeff, there is no party today," I said firmly, trying to back Jeff and the cake I was holding down the front steps. But Jeff already had a foot over the transom. "Let me see your toys!" My hands occupied, I could only hiss, "Back away from the front door, now!" "See you next week!" I cheerily called, to cover Jeff's "Do you have toy cars?" while desperately urging Jeff into the car.
A few weeks ago, I heard our hostess urgently call my name. Jeff, clearly disappointed with the toys on offer, had let himself into the attached garage in search of better things. "Jeff, come out here now! This is not a play area. I am so sorry." En route in the car I had expressly told Jeff not to go exploring in the bedrooms. I had foolishly neglected to mention the garage.