Dear Michael and Caroline,
From time to time, when I was a boy, my mother would get a little physical with me. She would smack me on the behind if I did something she considered wrong.
One time I played after school in my good pants – I was supposed to have changed first – and tore a hole in the crotch. My mother smacked my ass but good.
Another time I punched my sister in the stomach, none too cool an accomplishment. My sister told my mother about this malfeasance – who could blame her? – and my mother, Solomon-like, decided to go tit for tat. She punched me in the stomach, too, only with adult force, hard enough to leave a bruise as a souvenir.
I’m pretty sure that was the last time I ever hit my sister (though it was never a habit of mine in the first place).
At one point my mother got the idea that physical punishment should be administered to me on a regular basis. She got it into her head somehow that we should follow a schedule. Every Sunday night, say, she would dish out something corporal for my cumulative transgressions during the previous week. So if I had torn my good pants or hit my sister, she would keep score.
For this purpose, she graduated to the use of a long, wide wooden spoon.
That first week, I dreaded the arrival of Sunday night. She called me into the bathroom across the hall from my bedroom. She showed me the sheet of paper on which she had recorded my acts of misconduct. Then she pulled out the wooden spoon.
She paddled my behind till I winced, squeezing out tears in silence. Then it was over, and for whatever reason, she never deployed the spoon again. Maybe she saw how much it had hurt and regretted it, or my father got wind of her new regimen and put a stop to it (the latter scenario unlikely because he typically gave my mother free rein).
But far and away the worst behavior from my mother involved intimidation. She would get upset at this or that – who knows why? maybe I spilled crumbs from a cookie onto the carpet – and slowly back me into a corner in my room, near my closet. She would hiss and fume, her face twisted in rage, as she came toward me and cornered me. She would raise her hands as if to strike me and see if I flinched.
In these moments I have no memory of her actually laying a hand on me. That never seemed to be the idea. It was done to scare me, and for years it worked. Those scenes seemed to go on forever, my mother like a volcano, first spewing smoke, then erupting. Step by step she would back me into the corner, her voice growing louder, more furious. I would cringe and cower. She would raise her hand to feign a swat and I would put my arms out in front of my face to shield a blow that never came.
One day I decided to try something different. My mother had me cornered, I was completely out of room, without means of escape, and finally, after all these years, I had had enough. By now I was maybe age 12, bigger and stronger than before, though still smaller than she. She went into her windup, pretending she was about to slap me. Only now, instead of pulling away and whimpering, I snatched both her hands by the wrist.
My mother looked startled.
This was something quite new.
I seized her wrists and pulled her arms down and squeezed with all my might. My mother pouted and sobbed.
“Stop,” she said. “You’re hurting me.”
But still I held her wrists tight, asserting my new authority.
She had taught me lessons for years and now I was going to teach her one, too. I had no real interest in hurting her, only in stopping her from hurting me. But I wanted to make sure she understood my gesture.
“You’ve done this to me for the last time,” I said.
And from then on she and I were on a different wavelength. She was going to have to find herself another scapegoat. All I knew was that it was no longer going to be me.