My father, though often fun-loving, was a strict guy, and raising six kids, though we were mostly well-behaved, tried his patience to a great degree. In the early years, though rarely, when he punished my brothers he’d take off his belt, fold it in half and tell them, “bend down and grab your ankles,” then he’d give them a good whack, though memory tells me not too hard and no more than once. He didn’t employ the belt on me and I don’t think he used it on my older sister, though I can’t be sure, never did ask her.
When I was in my teens I regretfully had a nervous habit of picking at my acne, like some do biting their fingernails right down to the quick. I’d watched my mom and a few of my siblings do it, leaning in close to the mirror studying their faces like a map. Perhaps that’s how I learned. Or maybe the trait had simply been branded into my genes from former generations dating back to the Irish Potato Famine or the Spanish Inquisition. Who knows? In any case, it bothered my dad something awful, didn't want his daughter to have a scarred face, and he’d often ask me if I’d been at it, when it was painfully clear that I had. He’d slap my hands and tell me not to do it. Once, in front of my best friend, he asked me if I’d been picking. I was so ashamed, my head hung low like some cowering dog, and without my answer he slapped my face, not hard, but it stung.
There were times when I’d used a swear word or talked back to my mom. Once she chased me around the living room furniture, like some Laurel and Hardy episode, wielding a wooden spoon, finally lurching and smacking me on the bare thigh just below my cut-offs. I developed a good welt, kind of wished it had remained there like some battle scar or tattoo that I could boast about later. I still have that wooden spoon, use it to mix cookie dough like she did, feel some sort of bond with it, that poor spoon which had no aim to cause me harm. Now, I can laugh about the farcical scene.
On a couple of occasions my mom ground a bar of soap into my teeth, rubbed it hard across them a few good times to wash out my dirty mouth. Limey flakes of it caked my molars, took forever to brush away, and bitterly foamed when I tried. But I guess the tactic didn't work because I still have a dirty mouth.
At times, weekends caring for my son Calvin are long, while Michael attends to chores around the house, in the yard, works at his studio and cooks our meals. By Monday morning I am spent, my patience reserves practically on empty. Calvin often works my last nerve, though not purposefully, just by his usual manner. He hasn’t been eating lately, I'm having trouble getting him to take his seizure medicine, he's drooling like crazy, grinding his teeth, ripping off his glasses and chewing on them, dropping everything on the floor and finally, in the mere seconds when I turn my back, gouging tracks into his wooden tray with his teeth, carving splinters off that he swallows. I’ve told him not to do these things about a billion times over the course of years, yet he persists. When I'm sleep deprived, which is usually, it takes all the strength I can muster not to swat him, and at times—though rarely—I scream so hysterically that Rudy the dog cowers upstairs and my voice becomes hoarse for the rest of the day. I wonder if the neighbors emerge from their doors at the racket. It wouldn't surprise me.
How weak and puny am I to let such insignificant, relatively harmless incidents eat away at me like that? I think. It doesn't happen often, but it happens nonetheless, and I cringe at my pathetic ugliness. The poor little kid can’t help it, it seems, has so much going against him without me having to get cross. If I'm lucky I can take a deep breath and shake it off like those yoga gurus tell you to do, or simply let Calvin put his arms around me in a pure, loving embrace and my angst melts away like butter in a warm pan.
I remember once telling my friend Uli how bad I felt for screaming at the world in Calvin's presence. “That's just life,” she said, “you can't save him from experiencing life.” She gave me a big warm hug as tears ran down my face. She helped me to feel normal, let me realize that maybe I'm not alone out there, that perhaps there are other moms and dads who feel just the same, and falter. After all, we're only human ... and that's just life.