#13 Can’t Stand Wooden SpoonsPosted: March 2, 2012
One of the big events to love or hate about getting through the first twelve years of school was the senior class picture. I’m one of the brats who ran from cameras as soon as I learned to toddle. I’ve threatened to break a lens pointed at me. But now that everything is wrinkling, graying, drooping and dropping, I regret, just a bit, that there wasn’t at least a photo about every five or ten years.
But there was one time when it was required. And in 1965 hair was big and pearls were essential. One Saturday morning I took myself off to be washed and curled and flipped and sprayed and sprayed some more. I went home to put on a black blouse and the pearls, a 16th birthday gift from my father, but was greeted by my mother screeching, “Just where, have you been?” I reminded her that it was senior picture day, but she reminded me that Saturday was the day I cleaned the house and I could do my own hair.
She coaxed me into the kitchen where she kept her WMDs, weapons of mandatory discipline. In the junk drawer, with the masking tape, flashlight and spare keys, was a pair of wooden paddles that long ago had lost the function of a toy with a ball and a rubber string. My brother too was hit with those until he grew tall and athletic. I was seventeen and 5’7 1/2” to her 5’2”. She had to bloody reach up to hit me if she cornered me, which she did that day. I got out of the way so she grabbed a wooden spoon. When she raised the long handle I quickly turned. She still got me on my shoulder breaking the bowl of the spoon. I ran for it up to my room knowing she would never go all the way upstairs. She never entered my room. She did follow me halfway up to scream some more. How could I be so selfish? How could I spend money on my hair when I hadn’t done hers yet that day? My mother is a wealthy woman but insisted I be her personal hair dresser.
I came out of my room, which unfortunately had no lock on the door, just in case she did come up the stairs. Also unfortunately there was no one else in the house. I wanted to verbally defend myself, never a good strategy because it fueled her fits. Then her voice calmly dropped. Uh oh, this was really trouble. Out came, “What, did I ever do, that was so bad, to deserve you?” Followed by, “I must have done something terrible to my mother when I was your age.” If you read #1 The Ten Commandments: The movie, you know her mother hung herself, something I didn’t know yet that day.
My brain was in distress. Even if I could grab my blouse and pearls, I had to get past her on the stairs. Her venomous barrage continued. I assured her that I would do her hair and clean the house when I got back, still she raged on. I was a good girl and a good daughter so never got used to these explosions at me. Sometimes if she reduced me to tears, she would be appeased. But I didn’t want to cry and have puffy eyes for a permanent picture. I might be a Supreme Court Justice one day and there would be a record of my life. Sure. I had to get past her when her special treat was always to slap me in the face. I made an extra soul draining promise just to get to my “photo shoot” without a hand imprinted on my cheek. She withdrew down the steps. I changed to the blouse and pearls, and hurried down to get to the front door.
Most mothers have a phrase, back then anyway, for teen daughters. They say something sweet and encouraging like, “You’re so pretty when you smile.” But her version was, “You wouldn’t be so ugly if you’d smile.” I had tried on other occasions to tell her that the statement itself didn’t make me want to smile. But that further fueled the rage. Instead, I went out the front door, careful not to let the screen door slam. And I heard from inside the house, “You wouldn’t be so ugly if you’d smile.”
She continued to cook with that broken wooden spoon as a small threat.
Her poison about being ugly, was so instilled in me that I thought I was, maybe not ugly, but certainly not pretty for more than half my life. In Manhattan when I was with a friend who happened to be a handsome gay man, I always assumed men were looking at him.
I lost my high school annual decades ago along with any copy of that picture, so a friend sent me one recently. I look at it now as I write this, and that hair wouldn’t move in a typhoon. But I don’t see ugly. And I don’t see a smile.