A good whoopin’.
It’s happened to many of us. To the fortunate others, it has not. Corporal punishment. Punishment intended to cause pain. In polite, more acceptable terms, a spanking or a paddling. Less acceptable, but perhaps more accurate: slapped with an angry hand, whipped with a belt, struck with an object like a stick, ruler, or spatula. A caning, a thrashing, flagellation, a strapping, a lacing, or at the more extreme end: a beating. A good whoopin’.
“Pull down your pants.”
The anticipation. Then the delivery. Whoosh, crack, pain. Just like that. Then again. And again.
When I was a boy, my mother delivered the corporal punishment. I was the oldest by about five years, so she had plenty of opportunity to get some of the meanness out of her system, as I never saw my brother or sisters experience what I had, though they did get the occasional spanking.
Was I just that much more incorrigible, a child who deserved to be smacked? I asked myself that question many times.
I was mischievous, daring, an inveterate explorer, often pushing the boundaries. I don’t recall a lot of lickings before my next sibling in line was born. As best I can remember, it all started not long after my mother miss-carried and lost a brother I never knew when I was about three years old. She and my father began arguing more, and yet, three more children were born.
I never saw my mother hit my father, nor my father hit my mother. And my father never hit me. But good ole’ Mom sure hit me. Hard and often. Sometimes it was a random strike at whatever part of me was most convenient. A smack on the head, a punch in the shoulder, a slap in the face, a yank on my hair. Other times it was an orchestrated event where I was orally chastised, often at great length, then the pants came down and I would take a set number of lashes in the biblical fashion on my bare ass. It didn’t seem to depend on the transgression, as most I remember as being minor. It depended on my mother’s mental state of the moment. She had me pull down my pants, set me over her knee, and hit me with whatever was close at hand. A yardstick, a ruler, a hairbrush, a stick, or a belt.
One time when she was hitting me with a yardstick, as I silently counted the blows, she broke the yardstick over my ass. She stopped. Then she laughed. I counted this as good luck as she was only just getting started, and I laughed, as well. I’d broken the yardstick on my skinny little butt! I’m sure I didn’t consider how insane it was to laugh because I’d stopped being whipped. I had yet to develop the keen sense of irony that I have to this day.
Mother had a variety of ways of meting out her punishments. The most diabolical was to send me out to a willow thicket in the field and select a willow reed to be thrashed with.
“Go out and find yourself a strong willow branch and bring it back to me,” she’d say. As you may know, willow branches are very flexible – they are like whips. For ages, willow was used as a horse whip. What a dilemma: I was to select the branch to be used in my punishment.
One day, when I was about 10, I didn’t return. I just kept walking. Past the willow grove, through the fields to my favorite spring-fed pond in the far reaches of the farm’s fields. I sat in the shade of an old maple, or maybe it was a box elder, and thought long and hard about my alternatives. Should I keep walking to the nearest road and not look back? Should I just jump in the water and drown myself? I didn’t know.
I sat for a very long time, then stripped off my clothes and jumped into the pond as I’d done many times before. The cool water brought me around, cleared my head, and brought me back to the present. I surfaced, and then I dove down again. As the bottom grass tickled my face, I decided what to do. I was going to walk back without the god-damned willow reed and announce that I was never going to the willow grove again. If I was beaten, I’d get up in the middle of the night, take all the money I could find in the house, which wouldn’t be much, walk into town, and get on a bus to somewhere. Anywhere. And I’d never return. I’d die first.
I went back to shore, slowly dressed, and then, over the hill, I saw my Grandpa walking to the pond. He knew where to find me. They’d been looking for me. He took me in his arms, gave me a long hug, and I explained what had happened. He shook his head and we walked back to my parents’ house without words. He had me wait outside while he went in and talked with my mother. When he came back out, he said, “You can go in now, there’ll be no lashing today.” I walked through in through the kitchen, past my mother, who turned her back to me as I passed by, and went to my room. Later, we all sat around the table to eat dinner in mostly silence. I had little appetite. I just wanted this dinner to be over. I wanted this life to be over.
Much later, I talked to my grandparents about my mother’s behavior. She was their only child. They said they’d never touched her in anger or with malice when she was a child, and they did not understand how she came to be like this. They thought it may have been due to a horse riding accident she’d had when she was seven years old. Like me, she’d ridden and driven horses as a very young child. Like me, she was a daredevil rider, and one day she was racing a car on the dirt road alongside the field when her horse stumbled at a full gallop, throwing her. She hit her head on a rock and lost consciousness. The car driver took her to the hospital in the nearest town of Beloit, Wisconsin. She went into a coma and didn’t come out for three weeks.
When she finally opened her eyes, she couldn’t talk, walk or move her arms. She wasn’t paralyzed. Her brain had simply turned those functions off. It took several months before she regained mobility and speech. She had to learn to talk and move again from the beginning.
That was my grandparents’ theory, and it’s as good as any. I just had to learn to protect myself from my mother when her brain was on fire.
Now, it’s often said that children who have experienced constant physical abuse often take on those same characteristics as they grow older and into adulthood. It was exactly the opposite for me. As a child, an adolescent, a teen and an adult, physical violence revolted me. I looked on the school bullies with scorn and disgust. I walked away from many fights, though I defended myself as necessary and defended others when needed. I detested violent and aggressive school games like football, and I refused to play them. My sports were track and field, skiing, basketball, skating, and riding horses. To this day, I detest those who resort to physical violence.
I forgave my mother. My grandmother often told me to “always forgive, but never forget.” I follow her words to this day.
I’m most thankful for my grandparents and their farm across the field from my parents’ house. I spent as much time as I could with them. I loved the farming life, milking cows and goats, herding sheep on my horse with my grandfather’s German Shepherd, Prince, and being intensely involved in the life and death of every creature through all the seasons. I enjoyed hard work and helping my grandfather with everything from fencing to haying to animal husbandry. I nursed the orphan lambs through the first weeks of their lives. The farm gave me strength and purpose.
Here’s the final story I’ll tell on this subject.
One day, my mother came across the field from our house to my grandparents’ farm looking for me. She was madder than a wet hen about something only known to her, and she started yelling at me about being irresponsible, not returning home on time, being just like my father, and whatever else surfaced. I knew it was time to start putting distance between her and me, but when she saw me take off she grabbed the baseball bat I’d been playing with and came after me. I headed for the nearest tree I could quickly climb at about the same time my grandfather came running from the barn. He caught up with her, took the bat from her hands and told her to go home. I spent the next days at my grandparents’ house, sleeping in my favorite place on earth, the large screen porch overlooking the big valley below. It was pure peace. I slept there many summer nights and late into the fall.
My mother, her soul at rest at last, used to say my grandparents “spoiled” me.
They didn’t spoil me. They saved me. I know exactly how lucky I am to have had them nearby.
Summers, I lived mostly with my grandparents. My grandmother was an excellent cook, so I ate well. She taught me about cooking and baking. After supper, I played from the Lutheran hymnal or 1950s sheet music on Grandma’s old piano, listened to classical music on WCCO radio on the porch at bedtime, and drifted off into deep sleep. I woke each morning to birds chatting in the misty sunrise that settled over the St. Croix River Valley from the porch of their 19th century farm house, had a hearty breakfast, and went out to help Grandpa with the chores. I milked cows – and goats – collected the eggs for market, tended the huge garden, pruned trees in the apple orchards, rode my horse out into the fields, drove the tractor, and built forts.
As it happened, in the coming years I did run away from home a few times. My mother and father got divorced. My mother kicked me out of the house at 17. Later in life, we reconciled to the extent we could.
All’s forgiven, nothing is forgotten.