If you were under a rock, you might have missed last week's news flash of the Texas family court judge beating his daughter with a folded belt for some reason. In an interview, the judge indicated that although the video did look bad, there was nothing wrong in what he did. In related news, we've all agreed that the man is a damned fool.
I've never held myself out as more than, possibly, an average dad, and while I'm quite certain that I've never flogged a child with a folded belt, I suspect my stepping out of the closet and the requisite moving away when the children were entering adolescence left a far greater mark than any belt might have. There is no apology that can heal such a wound, and like most parents, I cast my hopes on the resiliency of children for any salvation I might have coming. However, these things are slow in coming, and often those involved are not even aware, but perhaps one day, if we all live so long, we can call all that a memory made.
Seeing the judge on TV forced a long repressed memory to the surface, that being watching an in-law flog his male child in much the same way. At the time, though disturbing, the other adults seemed to accept the act as a necessary part of parenting. I considered it barbaric, and I still do, but I lacked the courage to do anything then, not that there was anything, much, one could do but make matters far worse, especially for the boy who was on the receiving end of his father's anger, pure and simple.
Growing up, my parents also used corporal punishment. My mother used a fly swatter, or sometimes a switch from the baby's breath bush by the backdoor steps. My daddy used his hand. Looking back, the punishment's did not achieve what either parent intended. Yes, the offending activity stopped, at least for the moment, but what I learned was which button could be pushed just how far before there was trouble, and I learned to manage that manipulation very well.
Here's a particular event that didn't turn out as they expected.
In 1958, I was five years old, playing in the yard one warm August Saturday afternoon. Sitting barefooted by my sandbox filled with yellow sand gathered from the low spot in the road below the house where the creek threaded through a cracked culvert, rusting store-bought toy earth moving-equipment from assorted Christmases, and old discarded farm tools from another generation, I filled my world with the usual play of a young boy.
For some time, I had felt the pangs that spoke of the need to visit the bathroom indoors (the outhouse had been retired by perhaps a year then), but as many boys, I ignored the call and the cramp passed, leaving me to think I’d have a little more time to play before needing to stop and step into the house. Finally, the urge was too great, and I stood.
Five steps towards the door, a terrible thing, far beyond a boy’s control, happened, and I filled my shorts. This is a bad moment for any boy at any time, and it was not the first time I had waited too long, but it would be my last.
As I entered the house, my father recognized my condition, and he was not amused. He stopped me in the doorway, and told me to step back and strip on the porch, which I did. He spread old newspapers in the middle of the living room floor, and told me to stand on them, which I did. He said that if I was going to act like a dog, then he was going to treat me like one.
There I stood, shifting on my feet on the inky papers, hands hanging pointless to my side, naked to the world, while he read his paper and listened to the baseball game on the black-and-white Sylvania TV in the corner of the room. The smoke from his ever-present Winston curled above his hand, rose over his head, drifted through the screen of the front door, and dissipated into the yard where I had just moments before found escape in childhood innocence.
A very few minutes into this scene, the gravel and sand crunched in the driveway telling of arriving company. My father commanded me to remain where I was, and his aunt and uncle, Addie and Tink, both as old as the dirt on which we lived and both the very definition of the over-educated fool, walked into the house.
Daddy explained what he was doing, and the both of them nodded in knowing, inhuman agreement as they sat on the couch, taking up a conversation regarding the farm and this year’s crop as though the now motionless spectacle before them was as common as a mockingbird singing at sundown.
It was at that moment that I learned to become invisible, to stand alone, to stand naked, humiliated, uncaring, a beaten dog with untrusting yellow eyes, and to disconnect myself from the tortuous reality of a falsely caring world and its unthinking people. It was a simple matter of ragged survival.
I do not know how long I stood there. I do not know how long Tink and Addie visited. I remember nothing more of that day beyond the sounds of my mother working alone in the kitchen. My memory of the hours beyond that point forms a blackened chasm, a pit with no bottom, no light, from which not an echo arises.
Twenty years later in our last conversation before our estrangement, my father, sitting with me at the kitchen table, recalled the event with regret, asking if I remembered, looking away from my darkening countenance as the tormenting memory clouded my mind, saying how he felt that one moment represented a defining change in me, placing a distance between us that we would never bridge.
He was correct. I never cared to win his pleasure again after that Saturday afternoon. I learned to abrade him obliquely, taking my pleasure in watching his anger rise, knowing that in time he would break, grab me by one arm with his left hand, and beat my ass with his farm-calloused right hand while he and I danced in an ever-growing circle of pain, anger, humiliation, and planned retribution.
A half-century beyond that sunny afternoon, I have made a certain peace with my father, or at least his memory, as I find him lurking within me more with every passing day, especially in the recognized seeds of self-destruction I carry, sow, nourish, embrace, and slowly exorcise. I wonder which of those demons I have passed to the next generation, and do I really see the latent seeds in those two children, or do I only see that which causes me fear, regardless of the reality?
Yet even with the cold peace we’ve made in the certitude of death, yet even with the blessed absence of the nightly dreams in which I hold him by his gnarled and aching feet while flailing him to a bloody pulp on the trees and rocks of our shared hell, yet even with his ashes buried in the sand behind Providence Presbyterian Church where his father once preached, and yet even with the mentholated cigarettes I’ve buried by his granite marker, I can’t help but think this now ancient scar still pains me as a broken bone, healed, only to ache anew on a cold morning, precluding a step forward to face unblinking the beckoning sun that warms our seed and withers our hope.
By the way, he hated mentholated cigarettes.