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    . . .a thin triangular flap of a heart valve. . . a small book usually having a paper cover . . . a medical lit-art e-journal from The Permanente Press
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A Child’s Memoir: Authority

Vol 6: Iss 2, Prose

I equate authority and punishment. While I am aware this is not a unique pairing, how I came about such an emotional conviction is not yet fully clear to me.  Punishment from my mother to whom I certainly ascribed a significant degree of authority, was not terror as was punishment from my father. Looking back over the past sixty-five or so years to childhood times involving corporal punishment, my brother and I certainly deserved whatever she mete out. Memories of my father’s punishments are generally clearer to my mind.  Furthermore, the punishments he dealt me were justified and of a measure to fit the crime. My mother’s, on the other hand, were far less effective. My mother did have the insight to leave punishment for major infractions to my father.  I will give an example of my fathers justice.   

When I was about eight I was leaving our apartment in a small southern town to catch ehe school bus. My path lay through the kitchen where my mother was doing something at the sink, likely washing our breakfast dishes. She had done something, or perhaps asked me to do something which caused me sudden fury, and I swore at her. The oath itself was limited to “damnit,” but I swore loudly.  The moment the words were out of my mouth, I felt my horrible mistake. I stood paralyzed, waiting for and then hearing my father’s purposeful footsteps.  A “good spanking” was his usual and customary punishment.  The magnitude of “a good spanking” is an interesting concept.  A deer in the headlights has a better chance of escape than I, as i stood rooted to the kitchen floor not daring to move.  

What happened took me by unpleasant surprise and seventy years later I can remember my father’s exact words. “Little mouths can become dirty like little sinks. When they do, just like dirty little sinks they must be washed out.”  He picked up the wet bar of hand soap at the kitchen sink, held me by my right shoulder with his left hand and with his right he ran that bar of hand soap around the inside of my mouth several times. Of course I was crying, which my mother noted.  His response was that I could stop crying by the time I got to the school bus or go to school crying. I don’t remember what I did, but I did go to school.  I never again swore at or around my mother.     

Mother’s punishments had no overlay of terror. The punishments I remember from her occurred when we were from seven to ten years old. Once there was a campaign by her and my grandmother that we stop putting our fingers in our mouths.  Days of remonstrances were not effective.  Mother and Grandmother decided to act and after several final warnings threatened to rub the ends of our little fingers with cut hot peppers. We knew the fire here since our grandmother always kept one of these hot peppers by her plate.  While being continually bothered by stomach ulcers, she ate one of these things over the course of every meal.  With our curiosity we had tested these little peppers and treated always treated them thereafter with great respect.

So after the final final warnings were given, our fingers were rubbed.  At that time chewing on fingers was perceived as willful misconduct.  Now in hindsight I am inclined to put down what we were doing as a passing tic. I don’t think my mother had more than fifteen minutes of peace, that quiet and comfortable peace that comes with the resolution of a nagging problem. And then she had two little boys in tears, not of the quiet and snuffling kind but loud, screaming tears.  The tic was victorious as we had, as sure as the sun rises, put our fingers into our mouths.  There was no quick fixing this though cold milk and butter shortened the period of our suffering. My grandmother's response was that “you shouldn’t put your fingers in your mouth in the first place.” My mother, softer, comforted us and in the process gently added a few more feelings of guilt to her insecurity.

I will say something about my grandmother and grandfather. They also figured as disciplinarians for my brother and me since we spent all of our summers with them, My grandmother was a country woman who married a country man. In contrast to my grandfather, however, her formative years in rural Alabama had been far more harsh than those of my grandfather in Middle Tennessee. My grandfather, one of twins and eleven siblings, had inherited a small portion of a much larger farm in Middle Tennessee. My grandmother’s attitude toward to the country and farming included the intense belief that life’s only true virtue was hard work.  Here some common sense was mixed in so that willfully or stupidly making hard work harder had no virtue, but by and large for her the harder the work the greater the virtue.

She was maybe not the best match for my grandfather whose notion of farming was more gentlemanly. He bought a horse and a fine McClellan Saddle. His wish was to ride about the farm to know firsthand how things were progressing, to oversee the work. On a well-fenced 160 acre farm employing one farmhand, he did not have a lot to oversee. He could ride out and count the cows then ride over to watch the plowing or harvesting action in a particular field and that was about it.  The whole thing would take an hour, prolonged into two hours because gates had to be opened and closed, and his mare frequently objected to being remounted.  The physical limitations of extensive oversight coupled with the need of a reliable cash income derailed his farming ambition.

I have only fond memories of my maternal grandfather. I feel pain even today over my father’s minimally expressed but consistent lack of respect for him and for my brother’s and my coarse treatment of him. I remember only one instance of serious punishment from him. I was about four and he was with me at the Nashville Union Depot. Somehow, I had his hat and threw it down some stairs. He had a bad leg, wore a brace and walked down the stairs to get his hat. I remember his telling me not to do that.  Somehow I got his hat and did it again, with his having to retrieve it. I remember the incident but do not remember the spanking I was later told that I received.

My grandfather was good to us, and in retrospect was probably the most indulgent adult in our young lives. He took us to interesting places around the area and sometimes on overnight trips he made around Tennessee in his work with the Small Business Association. The Small Business Association was Eisenhower’s response to his campaign pledge to do away with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Democrat institution from the days of Roosevelt and the Great Depression. The name was changed while the employees and mission remained pretty much unchanged.  He indulged me dangerously at times, allowing me at the age of eleven and twelve to drive the car. This driving included government vehicles at times. Coming into towns he would have us change places behind the wheel. He said the local police or highway patrol would “raise Cain” should they catch me driving. This was an understatement then, though probably far less so than it would be now. Had we been caught, I expect a strong admonition and fairly stiff ticket would have been the upshot. Now, I think there would be jail and social services involvement at the very least.  But times were simpler and less formal then, especially in rural areas. On all of those two lane roads and rural highways we never had an accident or serious close call.