I got spanked a number of times, and usually I had no idea why.
Today is my sister Leslie’s birthday. Happy birthday, Leslie!
She is the middle child, and I’m the oldest, by sixteen and a half months. I have no recollection of my life without her.
Here’s one of those family stories, the telling of which will make more sense in a couple of weeks, I hope.
The worst spanking I ever received directly involved her. I tell this tale not to embarrass her – after all, it WAS a half-century ago – but to indicate how much that incident has imprinted on my whole life.
When I was four or five years old, Leslie marked up the piano with some crayons. My father went to Leslie and asked her who marked the piano, and she said that Roger did. So my father got the strap that hung in the kitchen – this brown leather thing about a foot long that barbers used to sharpen their razors – and started wailing on me. One of the things he was looking for from me was an apology, yet even in the midst of my pain, I was unable to do so. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it!” I sobbed.
Eventually, and these are pretty much in the words of my father, recounting the incident years later, he figured that I was either really stupid or I was actually innocent. Finally, he requestioned Leslie, who finally confessed, and he started wailing on her.
So, what had I learned from this?
1) Leslie was his favorite, even after Marcia was born. None of us alive – my mother, my sisters – dispute this fact, and at some point, Marcia and I became OK with it. But for years, it ticked me off that he took her word for what happened, but didn’t even ASK me, disbelieving me until he had to believe me.
2) Despite the discomfort, one ought not to admit to things one did not do.
3) Sometimes the innocent do get punished. This is a huge reason for my antipathy for the death penalty; sometimes the authorities get it wrong. (That’s not the only reason, but an important one.)
4) I just don’t believe in corporal punishment.
In January 1997, Leslie and I were visiting the folks in Charlotte, NC. My father was brooding all day; my father’s brooding practically had a physical manifestation. When we were younger, we referred to him – but not to his face, thank you – as The Black Cloud.
Finally, that evening, when I was taking a 1 a.m. train back to Albany, not so incidentally, he opens up. He believed that my sister Marcia, who was in her 30s, was not being very respectful to her/my mother; that 19-year-old Becky, who was also visiting, was not being very respectful to her mother, Leslie; that Alexandria, who had just turned six, was not being very respectful to her mother, Marcia – OK, we could discuss all of that – and that none of them were too big to use the strap on.
I’m pretty sure I bit my lip.
Leslie, always the diplomat when it came to dealing with my father, thanked him for sharing, and said some more affirming things before indicating that she would not be doing any spanking. I followed Leslie’s lead (though I had no child at the time), and Marcia did the same. Then our mother launched into this discussion of the family finances, appropriate at some point, but not right then. My father shut down, and said maybe two words – “Good night” – the rest of the evening.
So, no, I don’t spank Lydia; Carol doesn’t either. This is not merely a knee-jerk liberal parenting mantra on my part. This is because, and the sisters and I have talked about this at length, I got spanked a number of times, and the only reason I can recall to this day WHY I got spanked was the aforementioned piano incident, for which I ought not to have been spanked. I can’t think of a good reason Leslie got spanked, except for that same event. There WAS a time when Marcia was 10 when she talked back to my father, and Leslie and I independently thought, “Ooo, she’s dead!” But he didn’t spank her; maybe he mellowed a bit with the third child.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child.” I’ll risk it.