My brother Steve was 11 and I was nine when we got our first spankings in our grandparents’ bedroom, at their small, pink cinder-block-on-stucco house in Tarpon Springs, Florida. This was on the first day of summer vacation in 1974. Mom’s instrument of choice was a three-eighths inch dowel rod, cut to a length of 2ft by her dad.
Mom had been on her own for five years. Our biological father – I’ve never called him ‘dad’ because he wasn’t – had walked out on us five years before. In the years which followed, Mom struggled to keep her head above water as a nurse in our home town in Indiana, working night shifts, swing shifts and double shifts to make ends meet.
Steve and I were not the ideal sons. In fact, we were brats, although we didn’t understand that at the time. I was a scrawny kid with a bad attitude and Steve was an overweight, mouthy, irresponsible boor, and I hated him heartily. In fairness, he hated me with equal fervour. As the years went by, our behaviour got worse and Mom’s frustration level got higher and higher.
Mom had her own self-esteem problem. Like Steve, she was overweight; she smoked way too much and she was miserable with her life. Still, she refused to resort to corporal punishment, possibly because of the abuse that she experienced in her married life.
At Christmas break 1973, she packed us up in her ’68 Ford Fairlane and we drove to Florida. It was a miserable trip. We knew that we would be living with our grandparents, whom we hardly knew. They were distant, austere people – Grandad Chester was a retired railroad conductor and Grandma Irene was an ex-schoolteacher.
Their house was, as I said, small – a living room with a sofa, a TV, a piano, and a coffee table and not much else; a kitchen; a bathroom and two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one for my brother and me. Mom, the only one of the five who worked, slept on the sofa.
By the end of the school term, we had all grown tired of each other. Mom had been warned about our impending report cards and had received at least a dozen calls from teachers about her out-of-control sons. Most of the calls were about Steve but I had my share too.
On the evening of the last day of school in spring ’74, Mom tried to have dinner with us before the start of her night shift. It was 5pm and she was getting ready for a 12-hour stint. Her job wasn’t going well – not that we cared.
I’m not sure that we were any worse that night than we had been any night of the past few years but this was the night she popped. I was being smart-mouthed and Steve left his dirty dishes on the table, after some disparaging word about the food, and made a beeline for the TV, popping his feet up on the coffee table.
“That’s it!” Mom screamed. “I’ve had enough from both of you. This is your last night of freedom. When I come home from work, I’ll have a big surprise for both of you!” My grandparents nodded approvingly. Something had changed, but we didn’t have a clue what.
We found out the next morning. At 7am, Mom – just back from the hospital – threw the door to our room open and and woke us up with the piercing shriek of a police whistle. We were out of bed in no time but we weren’t ready for her to start giving orders. “I want those beds made in two minutes or else!” she barked. I shook my head and said something smart. My brother trumped me by uttering The Bad Word.
Mom looked at Steve. “Follow me,” she said softly.
Steve followed her to my grandparents’ bedroom. They were already having breakfast. “You can wait on the sofa, Kyle,” she said. “I won’t need it for a few minutes.”
I waited on the sofa – something told me that she meant business. Grandma excused herself, saying that she was going to get her hair done. Grandad joined me on the sofa and said that Mom was going to be teaching my brother and me a lesson we needed to learn.
I didn’t know what he was talking about until I heard the cracking sound in the bedroom, accompanied by Steve’s blubbery wails. I was shocked but tried to maintain my composure. The cracking sound came slowly and deliberately and Steve’s protestations grew more plaintive. I counted 11 whacks in all.
Then there was a long wait. I could tell that Steve was getting a lecture, and that he was paying close attention to it. The lecture portion probably lasted no more than a minute, but it seemed much longer, especially since I knew that I was about to get a similar treatment applied to my own tender backside.
After a while, the door opened and my brother emerged. His face was flushed and I tried not to stare. He walked back to our bedroom and closed the door softly. “I think you’re the next customer,” Grandad said, as if I was about to get a haircut.
Mom waited in the doorway. I realised escape was impossible so I went without coercion. She closed the door behind me. I don’t remember the sermon I got that morning, except that she said that there were going to be some changes and that they were long overdue. Then, to my horror, she told me to ‘drop them’ – meaning my pyjamas. I tried to negotiate, to no avail.
“I want to see you the way you were when I brought you into this world,” she said. “I want you to remember this!”
I dropped them. She applied the rod at the same pace as she had done for Steve. Before each swat – and they were firm swings – she pronounced a crime I had been guilty of: skipping school, running off without telling everybody, smoking cigarettes (how did she know about that?) and other offences, nine in all. I know that I yelped, but not the bloodcurdling cries of my wimpy brother.
When it was all over, she gave me some time to compose myself. I was angry but I knew that I had it coming. I looked to her for some sign of maternal remorse, but she seemed rather pleased with herself. I was ready to head for the door when she said: “You didn’t ask to be excused.”
I was startled but not ready to make a case of it. “May I be excused? “Of course,” she said, “and don’t forget to make your bed.”