I recently wrote a short narrative about some vivid memories I have about my early childhood. From birth to nine years old, I lived on Carpenter Street in the community of Bridgeport, along with my parents and my two older brothers (one of them two years older than me and the other eight years older). My father worked on the loading docks of a railroad company while my mother stayed home to do what most mothers did back then: take care of the children, do laundry, keep the house clean, and cook meals. This was long before the feminist movement that had a major impact on women’s rights and ambitions.
Being a “stay at home” mother was not only accepted, it was expected and often desired. The man had his clear role, and the woman had hers. It’s just the way it was in Bridgeport and not too many people questioned it. Marriage at an early age was not uncommon for a woman – usually being wed shortly after graduating from high school – and often times, before then. Once married, the wife soon became pregnant – something the Catholic Church promoted, preaching that the purpose of sex was procreation, not pleasure. However, having children at such a early age created challenges for many young mothers that they never expected – challenges they often didn’t know how to handle.
She wasn’t a bad mom. She never really beat me. I mean, not in the sense that I would call it a beating.
She wasn’t very cuddly, but then again, in the early 1940’s, most mothers in our neighborhood weren’t. Not where most mothers and fathers were first generation immigrants, born to parents who lived hard lives and came here for new beginnings. Her father abandoned the family when she was a child and her mother was an invalid - bed ridden even before she came to America.
My mother barely finished grammar school and at age fifteen went to work as a housekeeper for the director of a local cemetery and his family - coming home only on weekends. What minimal pay she received was given to her mother to help pay bills. And that’s the way it was, not just for our family but for many new Americans chasing a dream or escaping a nightmare.
She married when she was nineteen. Maybe she loved my dad. Maybe she just needed to be taken care of. But she knew her role. Being a good wife and mother meant keeping the house neat, keeping your husband and children in clean clothes, cooking daily meals, making do with what you had, and ensuring the kids were well behaved. And that was it. She could control most of what was expected of her – cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and making do with what she had. These were things she had done her entire life. But keeping her kids well behaved was something with which she was not familiar. She believed that being a good mother meant that your kids always listened, did as they were told, and never questioned their parents. By these standards, we were not “good kids.”
No, I wouldn’t say my mother beat me. Sometimes, when screaming at me didn’t work, she’d hit me across my legs with a razor strop that she folded over for accuracy. It wasn’t often and was seldom planned - more of a reflex, a quick response to something I did that upset her. Suddenly, she would grab the razor strop from the hook behind her bedroom door and start swinging while I scurried to escape somewhere in the four room house. I couldn’t get very far, but it didn’t matter. Her aim wasn’t very good and since I was usually running from her, her swats were only glancing blows. But when she did connect - boy it stung.
No, the razor strop wasn’t her most effective tool for disciplining me or my brothers. I could run away from that. And if I did get hit, it only stung for a while – then it was over. For me the pain was gone; for her, the job was done. What frightened me far more were her other methods for getting us to behave, or to say we were sorry, or to promise to never do something again. These were not spontaneous reactions and they left deeper marks than bruises.
Sometimes she would throw me in her bedroom closet then shut the door and brace her entire body against it so it couldn’t be budged from within. As I pounded on the door, begging to escape the dark, she would whisper, “The green eyes are going to get you. Look out for the green eyes.” I wasn’t sure what the “green eyes” were, but I had read enough comic books to know that green eyes staring at someone in the dark didn’t bode well. After sufficient pounding and promises to never do again what I had done to upset her, she’d open the door, give me a big hug and tell me how much she loved me.
But she only did this once to my older brother, Tom. After throwing him in the closet she fully expected him to be screaming in fear and begging forgiveness. But when time passed and this didn’t happen, she slowly opened the door - only to find Tom sitting on a basket of laundry, arms folded and a defiant scowl on his face. Getting the razor strop from the hook on the door, she yanked Tom out, threw him over her lap, and struck him several times. Though Tom never cried or apologized, both my mom and he walked away feeling they had won.
Another occasional form of discipline was threating to burn my hand on the gas range. She would drag me to the unlit gas burner while I fought to escape her grip. As I struggled, legs bent and feet sliding across the linoleum floor, she would pull me with one hand while turning on the gas burner and lighting a match with the other. The smell of the sulfur and the gas fumes stiffened my legs even more as I pulled harder to escape. At the initial burst of flame she would pull my hand closer as I yanked and tried to fall to the floor to free myself. While screaming, “Tell me you’ll behave! Tell me!” she would grab my arm with both hands yanking it up and ever closer to the flame until I could feel the heat. As I would cry out, “I’ll listen! I’ll listen! I promise I’ll never do it again!” she would pull my hand just a little closer, let go, and turn off the gas. While I would be sitting on the floor sobbing, she would fall to her knees, gently pick me up, and caress me in her arms, stroking my hair until I stopped crying. Job done.
I believe my oldest brother, Leo, was the only one who experienced “the pillow.” As a preteen, keeping control of him required more desperate measures from my mother. Sometimes, like most adolescents, he would “mouth off” to her. She didn’t say anything right then, but would wait until he was resting - lying on the couch or across his bed. Then quickly she would straddle his body, kneeling on his arms and sitting on his legs so he couldn’t resist, and place a pillow over his head. Grasping both ends of the pillow, she would continue to push down until he could barely breathe. As he struggled to free himself, thrashing from side to side, she would relax her grip still keeping the pillow over his head and shouting “You won’t talk to me like that again, will you?” She would then lift the pillow briefly to hear his answer, then again press it tight against his head before he could utter a word. Then lifting it slowly once more, she would yell “Say you won’t talk to me like that again. Say it!” Then after Leo swore what she wanted to hear, she would push the pillow down one more time to make sure the message was clearly received
So, no – my mother never beat us. And I have no doubt that she loved us dearly. She just didn’t know any other way.