From father to son: “We’ll see how you do”

In writing about Monday night’s misadventures with Jay, I was reminded of the best thumping I ever received growing up.  I was probably six or seven at the time and my dad had just finished repainting the walls in the bedroom I shared with my sister.  All weekend long I’d watched him work as he’d sanded, taped, primed, painted.  We had around a painter’s cap that we’d gotten free at the hardware store and I wore it as I followed on his heels, trying to be helpful.

By Saturday night the painting was finished, and I woke up early Sunday morning excited to re-hang the pictures we’d taken down a few days earlier.  I got out a hammer and nails and set to work.  I wasn’t particularly coordinated, so I missed the nail head as often as I hit it.  Each missed blow sent chips of fresh paint and plaster flying off the wall, but I was so excited to show my dad that I’d re-hung the pictures by myself that I pressed on anyway, oblivious to the damage I was doing.

My bedroom shared a wall with my parents’ room, so my dad heard what was going on before he saw it.  I imagine him sitting up in bed, groggy at first, and then suddenly wide awake as he realized what was going on.  By the time he’d made it down the hall to my room he’d worked up a pretty good fury, the memory of which is still strong enough to conjure a faint stinging sensation on my behind.

This story comes up from time to time in our family conversations.  We always tell it in a lighthearted way, as one among many episodes from childhood in which things didn’t go quite the way we would have liked.  I can tell, though, that I’m more at ease with the memory of that spanking than my dad is, in the same way that Jay didn’t wake up yesterday morning needing to write about the scolding he’d received the night before but I did.

One of the unexpected pleasures of growing up is that it provides you with experiences to understand your parents a little better.  Through my mid-twenties my understanding of my parents was limited to what I’d seen them do right in front of me.  But the more experience we gain in life the greater ability we develop to imagine our parents’ lives during the long periods when they are off-screen in our memories.

So now I don’t just see my dad entering my bedroom furious at me for what I’d done to the wall; I imagine him in the moments just before he comes into view: tired, weary before the task of raising three small children, fighting to launch a business and pay a mortgage and sustain a marriage, accompanied by thoughts and memories all his own.  In that light, I see the ensuing spanking as more, or less, or something different than simply a grievous injustice.

Which reminds me of one more little story, told to me by a friend recently.  Almost forty years ago he was in his late-twenties, working for his dad, and about to become a father.  One day on the way home from work my friend started getting on his dad for always favoring his older brother.  In response his dad turned to him and said, “We’ll see how you do.”

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