Chapter 9…”Mom, the Actress, Dad, the Enforcer”… from my first book, ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood
Except in extreme cases, my mother didn’t spank us. She made unsubstantiated threats, and it became very clear to David, Connie and me at early ages just how far we could go before the boom was lowered.
Mom did, however, have a weapon far worse than spanking could ever be. She used guilt to make us pay the penalty for our misbehavior. It was devastating when she would put her right-hand thumb and forefinger between her eyes and squeeze the bridge of her nose while she tilted her head back slightly, closed her eyes and in a quivering voice would utter “Why do you kids do this to me? Where have I failed? I try so hard to do the right things for you. I cook, I clean, I remember your birthdays, I make sure you do your homework. I don’t deserve this. It hurts. It really hurts.”
She would then open her left eye the tiniest bit just to make sure the effect of her performance was getting the result she wanted. David and I would look at each other as if to say, “Oh, God! We’ve done it again.” If Mom were in a particularly bad temper, she might increase the voltage of her words by adding, “Yes, I can see it all now, my coffin at Bocken’s Funeral Home. There will be flowers and soft weeping, but in the midst of all the mourning as I lie there, you kids will be wearing Indian headdresses, whooping and hollering at the top of your lungs. Then you’ll punch each other senseless after shaking the casket to plead, ‘Get up, Mom! He hit me again!’ And finally each of you will scream, ‘I need clean underwear,’ but it will be too late. You’ll all three be terribly sorry.”
At last she would take a deep breath, expel a heartrending sigh and leave the room, again looking askance during her exit to see if what she was saying had registered. We would remain motionless for an hour or so afterward, hoping that God would show us the way to make things up to her.
Dad’s style of punishment was swift and much more direct. There was never more than one warning. A couple of painful smacks with his belt, and the ordeal was over. No muss, no fuss, no lingering guilt. Consciences were clear, and we could go about our business. Mom’s guilt technique stayed around for hours or even days. She would have made a good martyr. Her face during those guilt sessions would fit any Italian fresco of a saint.
Another aspect of my mother’s expertise in punishment was her almost atomic sense of timing. She would never chastise us when there was company. This was because she wished to convey the impression that we were the family from “Father Knows Best” or “The Donna Reed Show.” If one of us did something wrong while company was there, she might smile, and through clenched teeth, say, “Darling, Mother doesn’t want you to do that right now. Can you wait awhile, sweetheart?”
We used to get cold chills when she called us honey, darling, or sweetheart. To us, they were not terms of endearment, but preludes to punishment upon the departure of our guests. In this way it was possible for Mom to maintain a certain aura of order. Few people were privy to the reality that there was actually yelling and disorder at our house. Intimate friends and family were the only ones who knew that we drank our milk from jelly glasses, mayonnaise jars, and aluminum tumblers that had once been cottage cheese containers. Of course, to a kid there is no difference between Kool Aide in Waterford crystal and a test tube.
The only time I recall my mother actually losing her cool in front of company was the evening she gave a dinner party for my Aunt Augusta upon whom she wanted to make a good impression. During dessert, my brother, who was four at the time, stood up on his chair and complained that his wool tweed pants were scratching him.
“Wait until after dessert, precious” was Mom’s reply, whereupon David removed the woolen pants and tossed them smack into the middle of the big strawberry shortcake at the center of the table. No one moved, except Aunt Gus, who had a half smile by this time and Mom, who whacked David’s posterior with a bare hand. Before he was whisked from the dining room, his bare butt cheek displayed a hand mark that looked like a little red map of the Greek Isles.