Chapter 4. Do-Bees and Don’t-Bees
[T]oxic parents compare one sibling unfavorably with another to make the target child feel that he’s not doing enough to gain parental affection.[…]This divide-and-conquer technique is often unleashed against children who become a little too independent… — Susan Forward
Mem carried the responsibilities of two parents, and consequently she relied on us children to help around the house and farm. Joey took on a lot of responsibilities, often jobs that boys didn’t traditionally do. On washdays, he and I put the clothes through the wringer, rinsed them, and sent them through the wringer again, letting them fall into a clothes basket for Mem to hang outside. He and I also folded the clothes Mem brought in from the line and put them away. Together, Joey and I tackled just about any job Mem assigned to us.
Most of the time Mem and Joey got along well. I don’t remember whether she ever punished Joey, but I remember in vivid detail the whipping he got when he was eight or nine years old. She had given him the job of carrying water to the cow, and he kept saying he had done it when he hadn’t. When Mem went to milk the cow, she discovered that Bessy was dehydrated. She said Joey deserved a whipping, but she didn’t do it herself. She asked Datt to. So Datt took the whip off the top of the china cabinet and whipped Joey once or twice. Joey had learned by then that if he cried right away, Datt would stop whipping. And that is what happened. But Mem said, “That’s not enough!” Then Datt used two hands and whipped Joey hard, until Mem told him to stop. As I stood by helplessly, I felt sorry for Joey.
Mem’s relationship with Lizzie was a difficult one. It seemed Lizzie had given up trying to please Mem, and yet she needed her approval and love desperately. It was a vicious cycle. Lizzie acted out when she didn’t want to do the chores Mem assigned to her. Mem punished. Lizzie acted out some more. Mem punished some more. The punishments were not always whippings, likely because Lizzie fought back. I remember one time Mem asked Datt to “help” her. Lizzie screamed out like a frightened animal as Mem held onto her and Datt whipped her. I was scared and I felt sorry for Lizzie, but at the same time I believed it was her fault that she was getting punished. I thought that if only she wasn’t so stubborn, this wouldn’t be happening. I vowed to obey so this wouldn’t happen to me.
One night, Mem made Lizzie go to her room and stay there while we ate supper. I don’t remember if Lizzie was allowed to eat supper that night or if she had to go to bed hungry. I also don’t remember why she was being punished. Lizzie used her nightstand to thump the floor in her room, right above our heads. Things became eerily quiet around the table. I looked at Mem, but she was looking into her plate of food and chewing slowly. I wondered what would happen next.
I knew Mem was at her wits’ end. She didn’t know how to make Lizzie obey her. She assigned the drudge work to Lizzie, such as washing dishes, cleaning house, and carrying water and wood. She tried shaming Lizzie into doing the work by telling her she was “just like Datt.” That, I learned, was the worst insult in our family.
Mem treated me like the eldest daughter, even though Lizzie was older than me. When Mem wanted us to learn something new, such as ironing or baking, or if she wanted to ensure that it was done according to her standards, she relied on me. I played out the part of the smart daughter, showing off that I could do more than Lizzie. This caused tensions between Lizzie and me.
Sometimes I didn’t want to do all the work Mem assigned to me. I would stomp my foot and pout. At first when I tried to resist all the responsibilities, Mem used shame to get me to conform, which often worked. She laughed at me and said that my lip was sticking out so far a birdie could sit on it. Eventually she just called it a “birdie-lip.”
The only way to please Mem was to follow her every command. If I was in the middle of carrying out one task for her and she wanted me to bring her a glass of water, I had to stop what I was doing, get her water, and then resume what I was doing before. Sometimes I put up resistance, but I soon learned not to do that anymore.
I was four or five years old when Mem began spanking me. These punishments left me bewildered and confused. Most of the time, she was my nurturing and loving mem. I wanted her to protect me from harm, and yet there were times when she was the one harming me.
One night Mem told me to clear the table as she gathered together the plates from supper. I stomped away from her saying, “But it’s not my turn!” Before I knew what was happening, Mem grabbed me by my arm, whirled me around, bent me over her knee, and spanked me, hard. Then she set me back on my feet and said, “NA dusht do fleicht da dish op roma! — NOW maybe you’ll clear the table!”
I was so shocked, I could not catch my breath. I cried and sobbed. I saw black for a moment, and I thought I was going to fall over. I grabbed onto the chair next to me. I didn’t understand why Mem had hurt me. How could she be the same mem who had taken such good care of me before?
My memory leaves me standing in the kitchen, sobbing. Did Mem just leave me there and walk into the living room? Did I eventually recover and clear the table, or did Lizzie feel sorry for me and clear it for me? I cannot recall.
This may have been the first time Mem spanked me, but it certainly wasn’t the last. As soon as she’d grab my arm with such determination, I’d tense up because I knew what was coming. At least I thought I did. Then one day she added another indignity. After she put me over her lap, she pulled up my dress, pulled down my panties, and spanked my bare bottom. I was five years old.
By this time, I had learned that Sylvia was Mem’s favorite daughter. It seemed like Sylvia’s personality was okay in Mem’s eyes, but mine was not. Sylvia was quiet and shy, and I was outgoing. Sylvia was a compliant follower, while I wanted to be a leader. I sometimes tried being quiet and shy like Sylvia by copying what she was doing so Mem would look at me too. But it seemed no matter what I did, I could not get Mem’s attention. Within minutes, I would forget trying to be like Sylvia and turn into myself again.
I wonder if Mem saw in Sylvia the attributes she wished she had — docility, conformity, and a desire to please people, while she saw in me an outgoing, rebellious, and determined child? She didn’t seem to accept these attributes in herself or in me. Perhaps she had suffered the consequences of trying to be herself. If so, she may have been trying to spare me the heartaches that she had endured. I hope this was her reason. A more disturbing possibility is that she was determined not to permit me to prevail since she herself had not.
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Chapter 4 to be continued.