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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A father’s discipline

A father’s discipline
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 883

In 1960, I was seven years old, playing in the yard one warm summer Saturday afternoon. Sitting barefooted by my sandbox mounded high with yellow sand gathered from the low spot in the road below the house where the creek threaded through a cracked culvert, rusting store-bought toy earth moving-equipment, and old discarded farm tools from another generation, I filled my world with the usual play of a young boy.

For some time, I had felt the pangs that spoke of a need to visit the bathroom indoors (the outhouse had been retired by then), but as many boys, I ignored the call as the cramp passed, thinking I’d have some additional time to play before needing stop and to step into the house. Finally, the urge was too great, and I stood.

Five steps towards the door, a terrible thing beyond a boy’s control happened, and I filled my shorts. This is a bad moment for any boy, and it was not the first time I had waited too long, but it would be my last.

As I entered the house, my father recognized my condition, and he was not amused. He stopped me in the doorway, and told me to strip on the porch, which I did. He spread old newspapers in the middle of the living room floor, and told me to stand on them. He described that if I was going to act like a dog, then he was going to treat me like one.

There I stood, shifting on my feet, hands hanging pointless to my side, naked to the world, while he read his paper and listened to the baseball game on the black-and-white Sylvania TV in the corner of the room. The smoke from his ever-present cigarette curled above his hand, rose over his head, drifted through the screen of the front door, and dissipated into the yard where I had just moments before found escape in childhood innocence.

A very few minutes into this scene, the gravel and sand crunched in the driveway telling of arriving company. My father commanded me to remain where I was, and his aunt and uncle, Addie and Tink, both as old as the dirt on which we lived and both the very definition of over-educated fool, walked into the house.

Daddy explained what he was doing, and the both of them nodded in knowing, inhuman agreement as they sat on the couch, taking up a conversation regarding the farm and this year’s crop as though the now motionless spectacle before them was as common as a mockingbird singing at sundown.

It was at that moment that I learned to become invisible, to stand alone, to stand naked, humiliated, uncaring, a beaten dog with untrusting yellow eyes, and disconnect myself from the tortuous reality of a cruel world and its unthinking people.

I do not know how long I stood there. I do not know how long Tink and Addie visited. I remember nothing more of that day beyond the sounds of my mother working alone in the kitchen. My memory of the hours beyond that point forms a blackened chasm, a pit with no bottom or light, from which not an echo arises.

Twenty years later in our last conversation before our estrangement, my father, sitting with me at the kitchen table, recalled the event with regret, asking if I remembered, looking away from my darkening countenance as the tormenting memory clouded my mind, saying how he felt that one moment represented a defining change in me, placing a distance between us that we would never bridge.

He was correct. I never cared to win his pleasure again after that Saturday afternoon. I learned to abrade him obliquely, taking my pleasure in watching his anger rise, knowing that in time he would break, grab me by one arm, and beat my ass with his farm-calloused right hand while he and I danced in ever-growing pain, anger, humiliation, and planned retribution.

A half-century beyond that sunny afternoon, I have made a certain peace with my father, or at least his memory, as I find him lurking within me more with every passing day, especially in the recognized seeds of self-destruction I carry, sow, nourish, embrace, and slowly exorcise. I wonder which of those demons I have passed to the next generation.

Yet even with the cold peace we’ve made in the certitude of death, yet even with the blessed absence of the nightly dreams in which I hold him by his gnarled and aching feet while flailing him to a bloody pulp on the trees and rocks of our shared hell, yet even with his ashes buried in the sand behind Providence Presbyterian Church where his father once preached, and yet even with the mentholated cigarettes I’ve buried by his granite marker, I can’t help but think this now ancient scar still pains me as a broken bone, healed, only to ache anew on a cold morning, precluding a step forward into the warmth of human intimacy, the intimacy that makes us functioning human beings worthy of standing on the simultaneously cursed and blessed soil of the American South, and face unblinking the glaring sun that warms our seed and parches our skin.

By the way, he hated mentholated cigarettes.

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