It was the winter of my 5th grade year and my mom was away……that story is for a different time and place. The trip was sudden and emergent. Before she went, she froze a series of TV dinners for my brother Wendell, my sister Skipper, myself and my father. Her goal was for us to eat healthily while she was gone. My big task was heating them up, following the instructions.
The reason the task fell to me was because I was the oldest girl. Skipper was 8 and Wendell being a boy couldn’t be expected to do such things. My dad bemoaned my culinary skills and decided that there would be no more heating up. We were dining out at McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and on Lentin Fridays getting greasy fish sandwiches at The American Legion.
When the news that I failed to heat up the food properly reached my mom she told me she was cooking for her and her 5 siblings when she was my age. I got the barrage of the blame. Via telephone I was told I had let my family down and failed to pull my share of the load in her absence.
Yet my failure got us fast food every night. Skipper and Wendell were not only happy with me for dropping the ball, but as they announced their fast food dinners to their school friends they became the envy of the land.
My dad was the only parent on deck and that meant we were home alone for several hours. At first things were super tense because my dad was so used to my mom’s back up. She was the good cop, he was the bad cop. My mom would gently coax the confession and my dad was like the cop on those shows yelling, screaming, and finally you would break down naming names. You know, the cop who’s confession might convict an innocent person.
While the fast food diet quickly became part of the routine, my dad tried to hold fast to the no television on school nights rule. We had no cable, but TV time was TV time. Wendell was more than guilty of monopolizing it, and often knew to clear the decks as he heard the garage door. Never a fan of English class, he read The Red Badge of Courage as Married With Children played.
One evening, he had miscalculated our dad’s homecoming. Wendell was caught red handed. My dad snuck up on the 13 year old, took his book out of his hands and hit him in the head with it. There are some reading that are probably appalled, but it was funny at the time. Wendell yelped, and my dad gave him the riot act about how there was to be no television. And my dad gave him the speech about how his father had never finished high school.
After my brother’s public humiliation, we went to Pizza Hut. My dad admitted he hated The Red Badge of Courage and thought my brother’s English teacher was a little nuts. Apparently she had been divorced and let everyone know she hated her ex husband. As my dad explained, “That poor bastard probably escaped with his life.”
While Wendell was deterred for 2 days, he soon redoubled his efforts to watch television undetected. One day our dad came home surprisingly early. Wendell’s speed was a little better. He ran up the stairs but left his book in front of the television that was still on. My dad came home, shook his head, and turned off the TV. There was no lecture. Instead, it was the Pizza Hut buffet once again.
Sure, we were in danger of getting Type II Diabetes but who cared? You only live once, right?
And when we got home on that school night, my dad proposed we watched TV as a family. This was a departure from the lectures we often heard about my father’s days as a paper boy climbing up the hill both ways in subzero temperatures. Instead, we had iced cream and watched Married With Children as a family.
“It’s your mom that doesn’t like the show. Don’t tell her I let you watch it.” My dad said, adding another scoop to my bowl. He knew out of the family members I was my mom’s ride or die and she would get the information out of me. She always did. So I kept it quiet. I was a chunky kid and for me ice cream was the best thing next to money of course.
During this time a different dude emerged. This was the anthesis of the man I had known my whole life up to this point. In both extended families- my mom’s side and my dad’s-my dad had a reputation for being strict. He was the boss. My aunts and uncles knew when one of us was on punishment we weren’t allowed to watch TV at their house because the punishment wasn’t like Dread Scott. It extended to all territories and borderlands.
My dad was a spare the rod spoil the child kind of fellow. He was a nice guy, but if you got out of line you were in for an ass whooping. Unlike my friends who were grounded, our punishments were swift yet painful. We got loss of TV for bigger things, like forging signatures on tests and homework, like my brother Wendell had so infamously done the year before. I can still hear his hooping and hollering as my dad used his belt to this very day.
Looking back, science tells parents not to do this. But my parents were trying their darnest to keep us out of the penal system the best they knew how. As a result, we did well in school most of the time and were extremely polite. Unlike today’s children, we would not dream of speaking to our parents so wickedly. What I am trying to say is, my parents tried hard to make us good people.
One day I found myself in the line of fire. Skipper had dragged her feet to get ready. Since she was a kid, Skipper has never been a morning person. She dawdled in getting her clothes on, and had gotten up late to begin with. As a picky eater, it also took her forever to select a breakfast that fitted her taste. Not to mention her stomach hurt from the Pizza Buffet the night before, the venue that had become the regular dietary staple for our family.
We missed our bus, and it was all Skipper’s fault. I could have caught the bus without her but my mother told me my job in life was to take care of Skipper. So while it was tempting to leave the sometimes pain in the ass younger sibling home, I would have gotten more grief in the scheme of things.
Of course there was that moment where I had to confess my incompetence to my dad. In past instances this was met with him telling me what a moron and a failure I was. As always Skipper would be off the hook, and it would be all my fault it took her forever to get up, get dressed, and pick breakfast. He would point out Skipper wasn’t a morning person and I should be more understanding.
It’s not that he meant it. Like Skipper he is not a morning person. And when his morning routine is thrown off, it has always been a cataclysmic shitstorm. I was ready for it.
Instead, my dad wasn’t even annoyed in the least. If anything, he confessed his regret was not getting to spend enough time with us because of his two jobs and how he was thrilled to take us to school. It was on his way to work as it was, and going in a little later he would beat rush hour. As an added bonus, we got McDonalds breakfast because Skipper had not yet eaten.
The adventure wasn’t over. I forgot my math homework. It was done, but I had left it on the kitchen table. I realized this during math class, and hoped Miss Toledo wouldn’t collect it. Sometimes she collected homework, sometimes she didn’t.
Miss Toledo, a well meaning but high strung school marm type, gave me my homework card to sign. She was a former librarian who also had my brother Wendell for class several years before. During open house she told my parents both Wendell and I had the worst handwriting of any of her students. But our academics and knowledge of history amazed her. Miss Toledo also talked about how she loved the stories I wrote and gloated over the one about a cat named Crackle that won a ribbon. But then she opined that she wished I wouldn’t doggy ear the books I got from the library. Yet in the next sentence mentioned I also won the prize for most books read in the class.
Miss Toledo, like a kindly magistrate issuing a punishment, told me fair was fair and my homework card still needed to be signed. Rules were rules.
The last time my homework card had to be signed, my mother expressed her disappointment. She promised not to tell my father, but she lied. I experienced public humiliation at the dinner table equivalent to a tribunal. I was told such behavior would make me a failure in life if it continued. And then my dad said he didn’t want to be embarrassed if he saw my teacher in public because she would mention I forgot my homework. He was right, Miss Toledo would.
I knew the punishment would be worse but my mother had served as the good cop pointing out I did confess. My dad said that if I did it again I should expect a beating.
Sweating like a pig in a slaughterhouse I knew I was a dead woman. My dad didn’t deal well with fools or failure. While we were getting take out nightly, the verbal lashing I got when I failed to heat the food was one for the record books. My mom wasn’t here so the punishment would be free form. This was my second offense. While his mood had been good lately I didn’t want to chance it.
On the flipside, my dad’s philosophy was if you confessed and were honest, you could cut a deal on the punishment. If you lied and he found out, he showed no mercy. My dad was sort of a hanging judge though, so a deal with him wasn’t a deal at all.
Perhaps just a smack in the head. It would be over. Then he would tell me how time was passing, I was messing up, and “minimum wage retard jobs are waiting.”
Yes, the prolonged psychological smack in the beating. You know, the real wounds that cause a lot of pain but make better communal, comical anecdotes later on amongst those who were raised with corporal punishment. The thing that makes the bad cop parent like Chairman Mao, both loved yet feared.
As I got off the bus, I was chalk white. “What’s wrong?” Wendell asked.
“Forgot my math homework. Miss Toledo is making dad sign the homework card.”
Wendell laughed with a mix of superiority and shock. “Good luck with that. But you are lucky it’s cold otherwise he might make you pick a branch from the backyard.”
Yes, sometimes we had to get our own beating stick from the backyard. This was more frequently reserved for Wendell who hid my dad’s actual beating stick on several occasions. Wendell figured it would get him out of the punishment that was coming. Instead, my dad sent him to the backyard to get a branch. Wendell, still thinking he could outsmart my dad, would come back with twig after twig. Finally my dad picked the branch himself.
The way my brother whelped probably woke a few of the dead in the cemetery down the street. Mind you this was after Wendell saw it fit to bury his report card in the backyard claiming he never got it.
“It’s my fault. I could tell dad I’ll do your dishes after your beating.” Skipper offered.
“Why not just talk him out of it?” I insisted. She owed me that much.
“I can’t do that. Sorry. It wasn’t my homework.” Skipper then went off. She didn’t want to be around for this. She was much too slippery and smart…..and I was snake bitten by my own family.
Then Wendell offered, “I could forge dad’s signature…….I got pretty good at forging mom’s. It’s not super hard. He doesn’t even have to know….”
This was like the guy getting out of the joint offering to do another burglary with you even though he was caught red handed. Sure, he led the police to him but he had experience. “No thanks. You get caught.”
“If you get beat, we can get that over with and then maybe go to Wendy’s.” Wendell said trying to make things better. “You suck as a cook and dad likes fast food anyway.”
Time inched by as if it was molasses in a barrel. My dad came home and his mood was hard to read. The pit of my stomach lurched. Doom was immanent.
Before I could confess, Wendell, in order to detract from his covert television watching proudly announced, “April forgot her math homework and needs you to sign her card.”
Snake bitten by my own family again.
Grinning like a Cheshire Cat, Wendell wreaked like the street snitch who had ratted out an accomplice for a lighter sentence. He knew my dad had seen him turn off the television and run up the stairs. He knew his one job to take the trash up was not done because he was busy watching TV. He knew he had accidentally left his required reading in the TV room and it didn’t accidentally walk there.
Meanwhile, Skipper was hiding upstairs. She knew when Wendell or I got it if she was out of sight out of mind she could be perceived as perfect. The air was thick. As for Wendell, the white of his teeth showed and the sicker I got. I hated my brother, but I dreaded what was coming in seconds.
Would it be the belt?
Would it be the stick?
Would my dad be in an extra terrible mood and make me get a stick from the yard as the snow fell?
Would he be merciful and just backhand me upside the head and have it hurt for a minute?
Instead, my dad tiredly grumbled, “Get the damn homework card and let me sign it.”
He laughed as he saw the notation Miss Toledo made. “That woman needs to get a life or a husband. Something. Anyone with handwriting that neat needs to get a life.”
Wendell and I stood shocked, completely speechless.
And then he looked in my direction and said, “Listen, just remember your homework from now on. This will be a bill someday, okay?”
I hadn’t gotten beat with a stick, belt, branch or backhand. There was not the usual “idiot,” “moron” or “retard” my dad had grown so fond of calling us when we screwed up. There was no horrendous story about how he had to walk to school or on his paper route in the frigid cold. Where was my beating I feared? I had been preparing myself all day for my punishment. The death knell had been playing in my mind. Instead, there was this anti-climatic ending to the whole story that was both a disappointment and a relief.
However my brother wasn’t quite off the hook, “Were you watching TV?” My dad said. “And why aren’t the cans up?”
Wendell stammered to make some excuse. He mentioned he was doing homework. Granted, he was reading The Red Badge of Courage while watching Roseanne, but he was trying. My brother ran out to take the cans out. Minutes later he returned. There was no fight. There were no insults. My dad was tired and he just shook his head.
And then my dad asked, “Anyone in the mood for Chinese?”
When my mom returned things came back to normal. My dad again became the hard line disciplinarian. However, my mom was beyond outraged our father had not only fed us take out for two weeks, but there had been TV watching on a school night…….especially Married With Children as a family. But you know what they say, when the cat’s away the mice will play.
Bottom line, my dad was way more cool and chill than I gave him credit for.