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Ma Teaches the Wrong Lesson:

Being vastly outnumbered by grown-ups, I was usually a cooperative child, as children go. But, as an only child, I was much too used to grown ups to be at all awed by them, and that didn’t always sit very well.

Nor did I admire grown-ups to any particular degree, and, since the sovereignty of my own opinions has always taken precedence over expediency, this fact was also, no doubt, all too apparent.

It certainly earned me no brownie points once I got to school. Moreover, I was slower than average to absorb the concept that all grown-ups outranked me, simply by grace of their having got here first. In particular, I did not choose to recognize more than one of them at a time as having any great degree of authority over me.

By the time I was seven, I had accepted the idea that my classroom teacher had such authority. I had not yet realized that people expected me to accept the alleged authority of all the other teachers in the school as well, but that realization would come in time.

However, the real battle lines were drawn at home.

My mother, as I have stated elsewhere, returned to the workforce when I was three in order to earn the funds necessary for one of her recurrent attempts to outdistance the apocryphal Joneses. This was probably the very best thing she could have done for me, since it left me in Gran’s hands during a formative period.

Gran believed in treating children as if they were people.

Unlike Ma, who treated children as if they were puppies.

In any event, I had reached the age of seven and was gradually beginning to be able to see beyond my immediate self to an uninviting vista throughout which any number of random grown-ups would all claim to have authority over me, and I wasn’t liking it very much. Truth to tell, the only authority that I willingly accepted was Gran’s. Who, as I have stated repeatedly, here and elsewhere, treated me like a human being, capable of reasoning and of being reasoned with.

Well, this particular state of affairs did not sit well with Ma. At All.

I was her child, after all. Gran was only supposed to be her Deputy. Not the Commander in Chief.

So, armed with the comparitively mild complaints of my schoolteachers, who were already shell-shocked by the size of classes generated by the leading edge of the baby-boom, and not really prepared (or perhaps trained) to deal with children who thought they were people, declared that I was being “spoiled” by my grandmother, and, since she had her projected financial goals all but accomplished, quit work in order to take me in hand.

Now, Gran had made any number of mistakes in her handling of me. At the age of seven I was more than a bit of a prig, as well as a good deal more assertive than was considered acceptable in small female children in the early ’50s (I did have Ma’s example right in front of me every evening, after all, I certainly never picked that up from Gran), but I was not a monster of selfishness, I was fairly well-mannered, and certainly capable of being reasoned with, if anyone would “lower” themself to the level of attempting to do it.

Ma’s methods of baby-taming, otoh, were indistinguishable from her methods of training puppies. Which might have been barely excusable if they were effective with the puppies, but I can’t from experience say that they were. I don’t remember the puppies. They were given away once she had me. But she ruled by means of issuing Orders, without the dignity of explanations, and there was no acceptable response other than instant and complete obedience. Nor at any point in this were anyone’s feelings to be taken into account. (Society as a whole didn’t do “feelings” in the ’50s. We were Americans. By definition we already felt good about ourselves.)

Although cooperative, and usually reasonable, I was not a particularly obedient child. And I wanted to know why I was expected to suddenly drop everything and do as Ma pleased. The predictable answer of “Because I say so!” was no more acceptable to me than it has ever been to any other child. Or any adult either. As might be anticipated, the transfer of domestic power did not go smoothly.

So at some point during the year that I was seven, as an object lesson Ma engaged Gran’s cooperation in a particularly loathsome little bit of performance art, which I have never forgotten. Nor forgiven, either. It was years before I was even altogether able to forgive Gran. Although I think I pitied her from the day that it took place.

This odious little charade was enacted among the three of us in the kitchen on a chilly winter’s day, when I was in the second grade. Gran had walked me home from school, as was her practice. Once into the house, as was also our practice, we went to stand over the floor register next to the stove. Ma, engaged in fixing dinner, then launched into her prepared declaration to the effect that this was her house and we were living on her property, and that she was the boss around here, and that when she said “jump” we were expected to jump!

And then Ma ordered Gran to jump.

Gran jumped.

Then Ma ordered me to jump.

I did not jump.

Ma grabbed the wire mesh fly swatter from its hook and advanced, clearly intending to whip me on my bare legs until I complied. Even at seven I could recognize the inevitable when I saw it. I also had a natural aversion to being hit. I am ashamed to admit that I jumped before she struck the first blow.

“Understand?” Ma demanded.

Oh, I did. I understood rather more and rather more deeply than she intended, I think. What I understood was that my mother was a bully.

That must have been the point at which whatever respect I had ever had for the stranger who called herself my mother ended. Totally. Certainly, I have no recollection of having ever truly respected her after that. Feared her, yes. That I remember. But not respect.

It has always pained me that Gran, of whom I was deeply fond, had allowed herself to be made a party to this demonstration, But for a long time I supposed that she may not have been given much choice.

But then, nearly 30 years afterwards I began to have some second thoughts. There had evidently been a somewhat similar little “psychodrama” enacted in the family when Ma was a child. That one was a much lighter-hearted affair dedicated to an attempt to convince a very young Margie (who, as the youngest of five, by some years, had perfected the art of implacable stubbornness) to speak up and tell someone when she needed to be taken to a bathroom rather than wetting her pants. The children lined up in a row and each one who said “potty” was given some jelly beans (a considerable treat in that family at that time). Eventually Margie was induced to say “potty” and get her jelly beans. I don’t recall any other anecdotes of this nature, so it may have been a memorable occasion.

Ma, some four years older than Margie might have been about seven at the time. Had she remembered the incident and adapted it to her own purposes? Well, perhaps. It’s certainly possible.

Or had Gran, who had engineered the earlier performance actually have been the one to suggest the encore? Unfortunately, this is also possible. Gran underestimated me more than once over the years. On the other hand, Gran knew me rather better than Ma did.

A couple of years earlier the ploy might have worked exactly as intended. But by seven it was far too late for this kind of display. Gran had done far too good a job of teaching me what it was to be a person. I’m pretty sure that Gran (even if the demonstration had been her idea) never intended for the demonstration to be subversive.

On the other hand, having escaped from her own mother’s iron fist, just how happily would she have been adjusting to living in the grip of her daughter’s?