Mama was waiting for me with the screen door open. “You sassed Miz Wilson! You know better than that. Go cut a switch, and it better be the right or I’ll go get one myself.”
My pathetic explanation, “I wasn’t trying to be smart alek, I really just didn’t care if I wore out the seat of my pants,” was no help. There was no escaping. Mama wasn’t cruel, just intended for her children to obey. Selection of a switch was a weighty matter. Mama required a switch large enough to make a nice snap and sting when it struck the legs, but small enough not to cut the skin. I wanted to choose a switch just barely large enough to meet her standards. If I misjudged and Mama had to fetch her own, it would not be good. Dawdling would not help, so I chose the best of the worst for my switching. Mama let me cry a minute before hushing me. “Now you stop that! Dry up right now! Change out of those filthy overalls and go play.” With my child’s logic, I blamed Mama entirely for all my troubles, never thinking to be mad at John for tattling. I moped around enjoying my misery, maybe five minutes, till Mama noticed and threatened to put me to work if I didn’t go play, ”Right now!” Not being an idiot, I, straightened up long enough to get out of her sight, resuming my pouting hidden in a chimney corner. Creating some wonderful memories of my times with Johnny out of whole cloth, added to Mama’s endless cruelty, I wept luxuriously, but quietly, making sure Mama didn’t hear. That worked so well, I tried to dream up some long, lost times with the dear Aunt Ellie I had so recently mourned. In view of our anemic thin relationship, even my fertile imagination dried up pretty soon leaving me to resort to an ever present resource, self-pity. Now I was set. Mama was mean. She wouldn’t even let me cry after she whooped me! The more I thought about it, the madder I got. When Mama was mean enough to switch me, she’d let me cry just a minute and then say, “Now, that’s enough. Just dry it up.” She meant it, too. If I’d kept on whining, she’d have warmed my bottom up again. I tried to keep up my crying, but had lost my momentum and, frankly, crying was getting boring.
My temper up at the injustice now, I picked up a stick lying in the sand under an oak and whacked the tree several times. It felt good!! I whirled around to build up power and hit the tree again so hard it rattled my teeth. What I’d really like to do, just once, is give Mama a good whooping and let her see how it feels.
Possessed by fury, I drew a huge figure in the deep sand of the front yard, not fifty feet from the front porch. It never occurred to me that Mama was a perceptive woman, not easily amused by the antics of children, nor that things wouldn’t go well for me had she strolled by just then and found me beating a large stick woman drawn in the dirt. Enraged, I started at the top, beating Mama’s effigy, striping methodically down one side, even creating a carefully measured pattern on the bottom of the feet, before progressing up the other side, changing switches as I wore them out, taking care to replace them with big, strong switches, knowing how Mama favored them. Enjoying the combination of the rhythmic sound and the wave-like motion of the sand as I smacked, I immersed myself in the sensual experience, noting the fresh, dry scent as the sand mixed with the acrid scent of the broken switches. My mood changed from black to pure joyous enthusiasm as I was caught up in the experience. Seldom have I known such satisfaction. Standing back to admire my work in progress, I was suddenly horrified to see how obvious I had been. Mama could not have failed to understand, had she seen. I hurriedly grabbed a brushy top from a pine branch lying on the ground to brush away the evidence of my guilt, so I might live to sin another day. The deep experiences of my first real grief of Johnny’s loss, rage at Mama’s injustice, joy, and relief, one on the heels of the other made for a day of catharsis. Though it was years before I heard the word, its meaning was clear in my heart.