“I’m an ol’ s.o.b. because it’s a big, bad world. One day you’re going to know just how tough so you better get some of it, too.”
But I never did.
The world knocked me around like a feather. I didn’t have Daddy’s boot leather attitude about life and certainly would never fill his shoes. Not that I wanted to. His opinion was the only one that mattered. I wasn’t allowed to think for myself much less “do my own thing” as we said in the sixties. We were expected to sit up straight, graduate from high school (as he had not), act like Christian sons and daughters and do as we were told. If we didn’t we got the belt and not just from Daddy. Mama, too. And, boy, could they pile it on.
At the age of five I quit giving him the satisfaction of hearing me cry when he strapped me. With clenched jaw, I tightened my butt and took it. I couldn’t help yelling but I refused to squall. Probably he thought if I did it would be an indication of how sorry I was for what I’d done. Funny thing about growing up: you forget how it was to be a kid. They only regret they got caught, that they’re being punished. Little remorse is there for the deed.
What really hurt was when he’d come to where I was sitting, supposedly reflecting on the naughty thing I’d done and how best to avoid it again in the future. Hell, no. I was sniffling and crying and pitying myself. Why did I have such a mean daddy? If I died, would he be sorry? Surely they’d brought the wrong baby home from the hospital.
Then that awful man would come in and kneel next to my chair and tell me he loved me. He’d say that if he didn’t care he’d let me run wild and do as I pleased. “But the world doesn’t work that way, kid.”
He didn’t expect me to get straight A’s but he couldn’t allow F’s. Or it might be I hadn’t clipped the grass right around the trees. Maybe I’d left one or two blades of grass uncut. Sometimes it was that I’d shown out at PTA or church. Whatever, I’d done it and he’d whipped me for it. And that was love?
Mama was just as bad. Leave a single piece of silverware dirty and you might have to wash them all over again. After the spanking. Do it again and it was another spanking then do it over until you got it right. It didn’t take much of that to convince you to do it correctly the first time. When I was learning to sew she called me out for doing a sloppy job. “The seams won’t match up and the shirt won’t fit. You have to pin and measure, pin and measure.” Couldn’t she see sewing just wasn’t one of my strong points? It was one of hers, but not mine.
Children don’t get it. They think their parents are being cruel and expecting perfect little cutout kids. You only see it later when you’re given that promotion, when others see your leadership abilities or get a glimpse of your backbone. That’s when you see the reason why you were made to do things the right way.
That little cutout girl became the family’s wild child. Finally I got to decide how I did things, where I went and who I hung out with. At eighteen I moved out and got a place of my own, went to college then dropped out. I had a job and quit then got another, and another, and another. At one interview the manager of a grocery store looked at my long list of short-lived employment and asked why he should hire me if I was only going to last six months. I told him that was a valid concern, got up and walked out. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard Daddy saying, “You got to stick with things, girl. Don’t be a quitter.” So I found something I could do and stuck with it. That’s how I spent fifteen years with a maid service. Go with what you know, right? And, man, did I ever know how to clean. Ask Mama.
It took years to realize they’d done the best they could and to be grateful for it. They were human beings, the product of their upbringing with their own quirks, dreams and frailties. You only perceive their personhood after they lay your own baby in your arms. I looked at my firstborn and knew I’d battle a bear for her. I already had.
Where I live it still wasn’t good in 1980 to have a child out of wedlock but the alternatives were unacceptable. This was my baby. From the day she was born I knew I’d never be alone in the world. I would always have her. Later I would have my son. And I was going to do things differently. I would have more patience. They weren’t going to get a whipping for the least little thing. If they wanted to speak their mind, I would listen.
When I told them to clean their room I went in and helped them, showed them how to do it. Then I noticed they were back to playing while I picked up their scattered toys. The admonition was given to get back to it. Or else. And this went on and on and on. Only now could I see why the folks were so rough. There were five of us and we’d have driven them nuts if we hadn’t been so tightly disciplined.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big fan of corporal punishment but I can see the purpose behind it. If you’re told to do something right now and you don’t jump up and do it you have to face the music. That cuts not only at home but out there in the big, bad world, too. If your boss says to do something and you get distracted by online gaming you’re going to get fired. And if you don’t quit playing, as I’ve advised you to seven times already, you just might get a copy of Treasure Island upside your head.
Once I spanked my son and he turned around, dry of eye, to give me that proverbial look that could kill. Instead of giving him what for I had to go to another room and laugh. I knew that look. More importantly, I knew the feeling. Children are capable of devastating hatred because they don’t understand the murderous impulse they’re too young to carry out. After I composed myself I went in and hugged him and told him I loved him. That if I didn’t care I’d let him run wild. Sound familiar? Go with what you know. And what works. He told me he loved me, too.
As I’ve said, I felt like the world kicked my can every day and I was relatively powerless. I acted out in ways that were totally unhealthy trying to find my strengths. Then I discovered mine weren’t the same as my parents’. To this day I’m not sure if they ever understood me and that’s okay. Finally I understand myself. That’s even more important.
So I wasn’t going to let that happen with my daughter. For the most part I let her impertinence be met by stoicism. What was anathema remained so on pain of grounding. Once I even went to the movies and caught her with a boy instead of the girlfriend she said she was going with. To her chagrin, her stepfather and I marched her out of the theater and she didn’t get to go to another for quite some time.
Once she was picked up for shoplifting. Being arrested and led out of the mall in front of God and everybody was its own mortification. See, she always wanted more than what we were able to give her. Why did we live in our crummy little house and why did I drive that car and why didn’t she have a Dooney and Burke purse and why couldn’t we afford those expensive clothes?
Do ya think the ATM spits out free money? I literally worked my butt off, losing thirty pounds in three years by cleaning three houses a day to put her in the jeans I was able to afford. It hurt that she was ungrateful. I complained to my folks and they exchanged one of those “looks”. Then I recognized my own thanklessness. Maybe we didn’t have the same gripes, but I’d been unaware of the sacrifices made on my behalf. None are so blind as those who cannot see until the mirror is held up to their own reflection. Promptly, I apologized for every bratty thing I’d done.
Things between she and I came to a head one day and I don’t even remember what the argument was about. Suffice it to say, she dropped the F bomb and I cracked her across the face with the back of my hand. She announced she was moving out and I volunteered to help her pack. To this day she hasn’t come back except to visit. She has stood on her own two feet.
A couple of months after she left she came by to raid the refrigerator. We were in the kitchen and she had her back to me. She said, “I’m gonna tell you something. You were right. It’s harder than I thought.”
Oh, the clouds parted and the angels sang! Every parent should live to see such a day! You were right. She turned around and I saw a grown woman where just a second earlier had been a girl. “Does that make you happy?” she asked.
I went and took her in my arms. Of course it did but what I said was the truth, too. “No, baby, welcome to it.”
Good job, mom. Good job.