Friday, September 7, 2007

Under the Willow

As I've said, I don't believe my father was an evil man...I'm just now sure he was a good man either. I grew up in an age where it was a parent's right to discipline their child any way they thought proper. I'm not sure that I really disagree with that concept. Discipline is necessary, and more children are probably hurt in the long run by not receiving discipline that by receiving it. The trick, I believe, is that it should always be "discipline" and never "punishment." Sadly, my dad bordered more on the side of the latter than on the former.

I could probably spend hours writing about the different spankings that I received growing up. Most men my age could. But I've discovered in my journey that there are two specific events that I recall that had a profound and long-term impact on my life. Those are the stories that I will share here.

I don't remember the age, but I remember that I was young enough that all of my siblings were still at home, so I was younger than twelve. We had just sat down for dinner. For some reason, I had "inherited" the chair nearest to dad. That was the seat for the one of us kids who had the most recent history of being "bad", whatever that might mean. It was most probably because I had tried to sneak a look at the TV set that was in the living room behind me while I was supposed to be paying attention to what was going on at the dinner table. I don't recall that we ever had any meaningful discussions at the dinner table...not the questions about "how was your day at school?" or perhaps "what did you learn today?" Mostly, it was mom and dad who were talking to each other and the four of us kids would sit there quietly. Maybe we were supposed to be acquiring great wisdom listening to our parents, I'm not really sure.

On this occassion, as I recall, dinner start normally. The plates were stacked in front of my dad so that he could serve up each of our plates. But before he started to fill the plates with the meal for the night, he asked the table a question. He said something like, "which one of you kids stole some of the chocolate candy out of the milk truck?" It got so quiet in the house, you could probably hear the mice crawling in the spaces between the walls as they did each night. He solemnly and quietly looked at each one of us. Each of us also turned to look at each other, trying to determine who the guilty party might be. No one said a word. Abruptly my dad stood up, nearly knocking his chair over and said that he couldn't stand to eat with a liar and a thief at the dinner table and he was going into his bedroom until someone confessed. And he left. The rest of us...mom and us kids just sat at the table, the plates still sitting before dad's empty chair, waiting to be filled. Mom looked at each one of us, and asked which of us had taken dad's candy. Still, there was no answer. Finally, mom looked at me and told me to come down to the bathroom with her. When we got there, she asked me if I took the candy. I told her no, which was the truth. She stood there, looking at me. Then she said, "You need to go tell daddy that you took his candy. He's not going to come out until someone does." I told her that I didn't take the candy, but it fell on deaf ears. Slowly, I walked back across the house, past my brothers and sister sitting at the dinner table. Across the living room floor, tears on my cheeks, until I reached the door to dad's bedroom. I knocked...and waited. Then I heard his voice, asking what I wanted. I asked if I could come in and talk to him. He opened the door and I went in, the door closing behind me. I stood before him, my head down, and with tears running down my cheek, I told him that I had taken his candy. He stood there and it felt like I could feel his glare peeling back the skin on body as I avoided his eyes. Then he said the words that we all had grown to dread..."go down to the bathroom and bend over the bathtub; I'll be there in a minute."

So I made my trip back across the house, past my mom and my brothers and sister. I went down the small set of stairs to the bathroom, and bent over the bathtub. Tears were already flowing from my eyes as my dad walked in and closed the door. I could here him as he slowly pulled the belt from his beltloops. He told be to pull my pants down and bend over. I stood there shaking, my pants down around my ankles as I bend over the cold metal of the bathtub. I could sense him pulling his hand back, lifting the belt and then the sound of the leather slicing through the air. Then the first slap of the belt across my butt. My body jumped as the second and then the third strike of the belt hit my tender skin. I was crying aloud now as dad continue to wield the belt. He was saying "this one is for stealing the candy." And then, after a number of hits from the belt, he paused. I was hoping that it was over, but in my heart, I knew it wasn't. I hadn't been completely punished yet. He started hitting again, this time telling me that these were for lying. I have no idea how many times he struck me...it doesn't really matter. He finally stopped and told me to pull my pants up and come back to the dinner table. I heard him turn and leave as I slowly stood up, my body still shaking...all of the energy drained from me from the beating and the sobbing. I pulled my underwear and pants back up and slowly walked back to the dinner table. My eyes avoided everyone as I sat down, feeling that every eye around the table was staring at me. Dad had served up the plates and went about dinner as though nothing had ever happened.

The memory of that evening has stayed with me my entire life. The seed of a belief was planted in my heart that night. A belief that life was unfair and that I really couldn't trust those who I should be able to trust more than anyone. My family. My mom had forced me to lie...the very sin dad was so angry about to begin with. My brothers and sister allowed me to be punished for something that at least one of them knew I wasn't guilty of. My dad punished me rather than disciplined me. Sadly, I didn't learn any valuable lessons from the event. It didn't make me more honest and it didn't teach me not to steal. I've done all of those to some degree or another at different times in my life. But it taught me not to trust...and that is the greatest tragedy. That lesson has plagued and haunted me my entire life and has resulted in great loss and pain in my life and in the life of others. It left an unseen scar, buried deeply in my heart and soul.

But, I also carry physical, visible scars of my childhood and the "discipline" I received at the hand of my dad. Every summer, as I wear shorts and enjoy the feel of the warm sun on my legs and body, there are places where the skin doesn't tan evenly. Spots on my upper thighs that have a different texture than the rest of my skin. You have to look closely to see them, the hairs of my legs covering much of the spots. But they are there. They are the reminders of the willow trees planted along the north side of our home in North Idaho. Long, narrow branches that branches that hang to ground. They were planted as a wind break from the cold northern winds that would sweep down from Canada and the arctic cirlce in the winter to protect the house. At least, that was they primary purpose. But they had another purpose...a darker purpose. A limb, cut off made the perfect "switch" for imposing much deserved discipline. At least that must have been what my dad believed.

I don't think he relied on the willow switch very often. It was usually his belt that he used to teach us the lessons of life. But there were times he went and cut a new switch instead. And on one occassion, he used it to mark me for life.

The details of the event are still foggy. I remember that it involved not doing the chores out in the barn at the right time. I was probably that I hadn't fed the cows their hay yet, or else maybe it was that dad had found some baling twine in one of the feed troughs. A cow could eat the twine and make it sick...possibly even fatally sick. We always tried to be careful, and put the twine up where it belonged, out of the way, but sometimes we were careless, or just forgot. Whatever it was, I had done something that was wrong. I don't deny my wrongdoing...I'm sure that it happened. But for some reason, dad reacted in a way I had never seen before.

I was older now, and I'm not sure I ever received a spanking after this one. I was eleven, or maybe twelve. And dad yelled at me, telling me to come over and see him. He was standing near the edge of the lawn, the northern edge nearest the willow windbreak. He was screaming at me...telling me what it was I had done and he told me to pull my pants down. As I did, he walked over to a willow tree and cut of a long branch. He quickly trimmed all of the smaller branches and leaves off of it and started to slash it through the air, like a Musketeer with his sword. He walked back over to me and grabbed my arm and started swinging. As I felt the first strike of the willow switch, I started to cry and scream. I had been on the wrong end of many belts, but this spanking was like none I had ever had. Something seem to have control of my dad. He was swinging the switch like he wanted to drive it completely through my body. As he continued to swing, I tried to get away from him. But he continued to hold on to my arm and slash the willow switch through the air, each time stiking my butt and then down my legs. I'm not sure when the switch actually cut my skin, but I could feel the wetness on my thighs, slowly running down my leg. Dad must of seen it too, because he stopped and stood there, looking at me. He dropped the switch and told me to pull my pants up. As I bent down to pull them up, I could see the long, angry marks across my legs and around the front of my thighs. Blood slowly trickled down my legs from the breaks in the skin. I stood there, my chest heaving, as my dad walked away.

He didn't tend to me or tend to my bleeding legs. He just walked away. In some ways, I think that beating may have taken something out of him...somehow caused him to see for just a moment in time the anger he had inside of him. As I said, I don't remember him ever striking me again after that. But for me, the marks were there...permanently. Not only the marks on my legs, but the scars on my heart. I probably deserved to be spanked, but no child deserves to be beated until they bleed...and certainly not by their father. The father that instinctively we know as our protector...as our provider. That day under the willows, I lost my dad forever.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Oh, my brother. I've just read all of your posts and I'm shaken to the core. Even knowing since your sentencing that you had childhood issues, reading your words is chilling. I had no idea. In fact have always believed you were the favored one. Ironic, I know.

I wish I could say I took the chocolate. I might have - it certainly would have been something I would seek out for comfort. I have no memory of that night - none. The only comfort here is that there is much of our childhood lost to me forever - even with years of therapy and hard work.

What breaks my heart is that none of us as siblings could save the other. I always felt that I was completely alone. I think Mom gets the credit for that with her tremendous gift for creating a bad guy that everyone else focused on. And for changing the bad guy of the month regularly.

I am so sorry for your pain and aloneness. I am so grateful that we're sharing this part of the journey together. I'm grateful for your honesty and vulnerability.

By the way, I love your blog title. Totally perfect. I'm also captivated by your writing and hope you'll write more. I'll be here with you with all the love I couldn't give you when we were little. Sis