I honestly cannot remember what I had in mind that fateful morning. In fact, I cannot even remember what chore made me fake an illness. Was it school that I wanted to avoid? A visit to a boring relative? Some family outing? Whatever it was, I complained of headache and tiredness.
My mother had a simple criterion for missing school: if a sick child had a fever, defined as a temperature of at least 38C, he or she would miss; otherwise, not, or he or she had to be pretty convincing, or have an unmistakable symptom such as diarrhea. Furthermore, complaints of tiredness and headache, indicating a possible bout of influenza or similar viral infection, always warranted a temperature check. Mother felt my brow with her hand, frowned and sent me to my room, saying she would bring me the thermometer.
I knew the routine. I got in bed. Mom came, put a bottle of medical alcohol and some cotton on the bedside table, pulled the thermometer out of its case, checked that the indicated temperature was below 36C (otherwise, she would vigorously wave it to push the mercury down) and handed it to me. I did what was expected of me – I took the thermometer, pulled it under the bed sheets, rolled on my side and stuck it in my anus.
At this point, I should mention that when I was growing up (1970s and early 80s), it was very common for French adults to take their temperature rectally. This was the method of choice in hospital, and also in our home, for Mother had read some family medical books that said other methods were somewhat unreliable. Thus, whereas in the US a child would ‘graduate” from having his or her temperature taken rectally by a caregiver to oral temperatures, a French child would often, once old enough, be asked to insert the thermometer by himself or herself, under bed linen.
Mom departed. I was then stuck with a difficulty: if my temperature was too low, I would be deemed fit enough for whatever I was trying to avoid. Fortunately, I had had an idea that I thought was very clever. Little did I know that this neat trick I had in mind was cliché, and was even featured in popular fiction! I took the thermometer out of my behind, turned on my bedside lamp and began heating it.
Mother normally did not return before three minutes had elapsed (the thermometer was supposed to be accurate after one minute but she counted three to be sure). This time, for some reason (perhaps she had suspicions about my demeanour) she returned early. I nearly jumped out of bed as she opened the door.
I had no plausible explanation why I was not lying in bed with the thermometer in my behind. Instead, I was sitting on the bed, thermometer in hand and had hastily turned my lamp off. I don’t actually recall what kind of fake excuse I tried using – maybe I said I was trying to read the thermometer using the lamp. To my surprise, Mother stormed off, telling me to ‘stay there’.
She soon returned and told me to get out of bed. She took the thermometer out of my hand and once more shook it down. Then she sat dpwm on the bed and ordered me to drop my pyjamas and lie across her lap. At this point, I realised she also had a tube of Vaseline and some toilet paper in her hand.
When she had us take our own temperatures, Mother did not provide lubricant – probably reasoning that one would not inflict harm on oneself and that cleaning Vaseline off our bottoms was annoying. However, when she did the honours (as was still happening with my little brother), she used Vaseline. I gulped when I realised she intended to take my temperature the ‘little child way’ and, worse, in the position she used for spankings.
What could I do? I went bare bottom across her lap. Mother prepared the thermometer, parted my buttocks, and told me to ‘push’. This was her signal that I was to bear down as if going potty, to ease the introduction of the thermometer into my anus. I was used to it, since Mother was still giving me suppositories herself (for some reason I was considered old enough to take my own temperature, but not to take suppositories), and immediately complied. The greasy rod entered me.
Mother counted three minutes, then, with a dry and ironic tone, remarked that it was surprising that I had a normal temperature whereas I was supposed to be feverish, and given the temperature shown by the thermometer when she walked on me. Maybe I had an explanation? I don’t recall what I tried to answer. Probably nothing, for the case was so obvious that fake excuses would have done me no good.
Mother then proceeded to spank me, while chiding me for misbehaving. I had committed several offenses: I had tried to cheat, then lied about it, and I had also risked damaging a mercury thermometer, which would have been both dangerous and difficult to clean up. Furthermore, these lies were about health, which she considered an important issue and not one for play.
While Mother definitely had a liking for spanking on our bare bottoms, most of the time she did not spank long or hard, counting on embarrassment more than on physical pain for deterrence of future misbehaviour. Unfortunately for me, this time she considered the problem serious enough to warrant a long and hard smacking.
I was probably lucky that unlike her older sister (as I had heard from my cousins), my mother did not use a spanking implement even for severe cases, and was thus the severity of the punishment was limited by the resilience of the palm of her hands. These must have stung, however, for she gave it to me long and hard, and I soon could not prevent myself from utterances of pain and humiliation. My sister, whose bedroom was next to mine, told me later that she had listened to my chastisement.
Finally, Mother considered I had had enough – or, at least, perhaps that her palm had had enough. She wiped my anus and between my buttocks (I did not dare protest the slight intrusion of her paper-clothed finger) and told me to get up. She told me to get dressed as she cleaned the thermometer with alcohol, put it back into its case and left the room.
I recall that, during a later sickness – a real one this time – I feared Mother would take my temperature this way again. Fortunately, I was back to the regular way. Perhaps she had forgotten, or perhaps she considered that spanking had been a sufficient deterrent against future cheating.