“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. No thinking for myself much less “doing my own thing” as we said in the sixties. We were 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. 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. If I did they might think I was remorseful. Funny thing about growing up: you forget how it is to be a kid. Kids only regret they got caught, little guilt is there for the deed. After the spanking I’d be sent to reflect on whatever wicked thing done. Did I? Hell, no. I was too busy pitying myself. Why did I have such mean parents? If I died, would Daddy 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 he wasn’t raising a bunch of hooligans. He didn’t expect me to get straight A’s but he couldn’t allow F’s. It might be I hadn’t clipped the grass right around the trees. Sometimes it was showing out at PTA or church. Whatever. I’d done it, they whipped me for it. And that was love?
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 recognize your leadership abilities, get a glimpse of your backbone or appreciate your can-do ethic. That’s when you know the reason 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, 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. 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. From the back of my mind I heard Daddy say, “You got to stick with things. Don’t be a quitter.” So, I found something I could do and poured fifteen years into a maid service. Go with what you know, right? And, man, did I ever know how to clean thanks to Mama.
It took years to realize they’d done the best they could and to be grateful for it. Parents are human beings, the product of their own upbringing, quirks, dreams and frailties. You only find that perspective after your arms lock around your firstborn. I looked at that tiny bundle and knew I’d battle a bear for her. From the day she was born I knew I’d never be alone in the world again. 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.
The first time I told them to clean their room I decided to “help” them, show them how to do it. Lead by example. Then I noticed they were back to playing while I was picking up their scattered toys. The admonition was given to get back to it. Or else. And it went on and on and on. I am not a good disciplinarian nor am I capable of being consistent at punishment. Now could I see why the folks were so rough.
Don’t get me wrong. I condemn beatings but I came to see the purpose of tanning some ass. If you’re told to do something right now and don’t jump up to do it there may be a whole symphony to face. That cuts not only at home but in the big, bad world, too. If your boss assigns a task and you get distracted by online gaming you’re going to get fired. I’ve advised you seven times already to get cracking on your messy room. The next time I say it you’re going to 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 that, luckily, 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 previously written, 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. I discovered mine weren’t the same as my parents’ and, to this day, I’m not sure they ever understood me. That’s okay. Finally, more importantly, I understand myself.
So how to get your point across in these days when corporal punishment is unpopular? Self-mortification is a great teaching tool. Shoplifting will get you marched out of the mall handcuffed with God and everybody watching. Tell me you’re going to a movie with your girlfriends when you’re actually meeting a boy there and I’ll come in and escort you from the theater and give zero #$%@s about embarrassing you. Sleep with gum in your mouth one more time; I’ll cut it out of your hair and make you go to school gapping all the way.
I still wish I’d bought my little princess that T shirt that said, “Buy me something!” She always wanted more than we were able to give. Why did we live in our crummy little house and why did I drive that car? Everyone else had a Dooney and Burke purse and they always wore better 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 could afford. It hurt that she was ungrateful. I complained to my folks and they exchanged one of those “looks”. Yes, they knew exactly what I was griping about. Of course they did. The only honorable, mature thing to do was apologize for every bratty thing I’d done.
Things 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. I volunteered to help her pack. To this day she hasn’t come back except to visit and has stood on her own two feet.
A couple of months later she came by to raid the refrigerator. With 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.
Of course it did but what I said was the truth, too. I took her in my arms. “No, baby, welcome to it.”
Good job, mom. Good job.
Cover image courtesy of Jason Persse via Flickr