Once, long long ago, when I was a small boy, self-absorbed in the corner with my toys, my dad walked past me without a word. He left the house followed by a heavily slamming door. I jumped at that door slam. Through the window I watched as he entered the car and slammed that door as well. I continued to watch out the window as his departure was covered over by dust and dirt kicked up from spinning tires. It was an unusual scene but not totally unfamiliar. My dad was a stranger in a strange land who had returned to America from his native England in a promise made to my mother, who had been a war bride, long ago while buzz bombs from Hitler’s Germany flew overhead in East Studdal. There were times when the demands of family life exceeded his ability. To relieve the pressure when it grew too strong an argument would erupt ending with a slammed door and the roar of the engine in the Oldsmobile my mother had named Jezabel. A moment of sadness came and went as I became aware once more of my toys.
I played on as most only children do. In a house that wore the creed “Children should be seen and not heard” like a badge, I closed off the unhappiness that occasionally rose up through imagination and make believe. It has become what is now called a coping mechanism on a small scale. My cowboy and Indian figures made of plastic came alive once again on the model ranch I had gotten for Christmas. The ranch house was attached to steel rectangle which was painted to resemble the ground. Surrounding the ranch were a corral and a barn and a bunkhouse. I was defending it from an Indian attack. Between my fingers the boss of the ranch fired his rifle. I held him behind a fence post of the corral. With my other hand I bounced a lone Indian on his pony straight for the man in my right hand.
Pow! Pow! came the shots from the rancher’s Winchester. The Indian and his pony fell to the side, stone plastic dead. I reached for another Indian astride a pony strikingly similar to the one who had just bitten the dust, when from the back room I heard a sniff followed by several more. The ranch war came to an end as I became aware of my mother in the back. Those were the sounds of tears escaping the burden of sadness.
I lay my toy people aside. The back door to the bathroom was closed. The sound of sniffing was clearer here. I knocked.
There was no answer. The sniffing ceased and all was quiet. I knocked again.
“Mommy? Are you in there?” I asked timidly.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, sweetheart. Go play. I’ll be out shortly.”
“Yes, mommy.” I answered just as I was supposed to and returned to the window and my ranch house. I sat but had no desire to play any longer. Idly I rolled the rancher in my hand while watching the hallway leading to the back room. The pain in my hand made me realize I had gripped the figure with all my might. It had begun to dig deeply into my palm with its flat sharp ridges. I threw it against the ranch house with a clatter.
“What happened, dear?” My mother was beside me looking down with a smile on her face. “Here, let me take a look,” she said, crouching beside me. “Goodness. How hard did you squeeze that toy? You came close to breaking the skin.”
“I don’t know. It just started to hurt.”
“Well,” she said kissing my palm, “it’ll be better before you are twice married.” She stood and turned to go to the kitchen.
“Were you crying, mommy?”
She was suspended between hiding the truth and speaking the truth. The struggle was real. I sensed it without understanding it.
Finally she spoke. “Yes, I was Sweetheart. Grownups do that occasionally.”
“Why? I thought only kids like me cried.”
“Yes, I used to think so too, darling, but I’ve since learned better.” She turned once more toward the kitchen.
“Why were you crying?” The question hung in the air. Still facing the kitchen she stopped once again suspended. A minute passed. Her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. There was a chair nearby. She stepped to it and sat.
“Come here,” she said. When I heard those words from my dad I always wanted to go anywhere but there. My mother’s face showed a sadness not seen in my dad’s face at such time. His face was always stern with the promise of attention I didn’t want. A smile slowly crept over her face as she beckoned me onto her lap. Her eyes reflected that smile. Feeling welcome and safe I reached up. She helped me onto her lap.
“Your dad and I had a fight,” she opened up and the words came out. “I get sad and unhappy when we fight so I cry.’
“What were you fighting about?”
She looked out the window as if to a land far away, England maybe.
“I’m not really sure. It was a spat, but there is so much more invloved. I don’t think I should burden you with it.”
“Why is daddy so mean?”
“Your daddy isn’t mean, Rickey. He’s a good man. Stern in his manner but a heart so big it hurts him to own it.”
The far-away look occupied her face once more. I had to hug her to get her attention again.
“Why is he like that? Sometimes I’m scared of him.” A confession I would never have made at any other time.
“Oh no, honey. You should never be scared of your daddy. He loves you more than you can know. He loves us both. He brought us back to America because he promised me he would. He left his family and everything he knew to bring us here. So don’t be afraid and don’t ever think he doesn’t love you.’
“He doesn’t act like it sometimes.”
“I know. I think the fact he’s here and having to find work that he isn’t trained for is telling on him. Do you remember the tugboats?”
“Yes ma’am.” We had visited him at the Whitestack docks several times. We had even been able to ride on the tugs when they led ships in the harbor to the docks. “He doesn’t work there anymore though does he?”
“No. He found a job that pays better but he still is learning and that puts a strain on him especially having to work nights.”
The night shift was hard on all of us. He was never around in the daytime because he had to sleep. The worst part was how quiet we had to be in the house during those times. It was hard to be quiet as a mouse in stocking feet. Asking a child to hold down the rambunctiousness was a crazy request. I had to be in control of my natural inclination to whoop it up like a wild Indian or else. The “or else” was usually unpleasant.
“I wish he didn’t work nights.”
“Me too, honey. Me too. But he does because that’s the job. This world is a difficult place sometimes but we have to deal with it as best we can. I have begun to understand of late that that is true.”
“What do you mean, mommy?”
“I guess I mean… Well. I think it means my belief and faith in God have been strengthened.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me see. How to explain to a young boy? I used to think that I could make your daddy happy. I’ve always been a happy person. Your daddy had a very hard childhood. We had our hard times too, but it was different for us. We had a farm. Our family worked together. Our love for one another brought us through the hard times.
“Your daddy’s family life was hard too. He has told me stories about those times in England. His memories are full of difficulties faced with the British stiff upper lip. His emotions have always been bottled up. There was never any display of emotion. From his telling of it, the sense of love was thin. Where we always knew and felt the love, he didn’t. Where we could let our feelings be known, he couldn’t. The life of a Victorian Englishman was a hard one. It’s hard for us to understand how an era like the Victorian one can continue to have such a hold on a people but it did. His mother was a very strict, very proper Victorian woman. Punishment for stepping out of line was severe. He had some tough times in that household. He wasn’t an angel by any means and it was rewarded with the rod often.”
“Daddy got spanked?” I couldn’t believe that.
“Oh yes. He received many a spanking.’
“Like he spanks me?”
“Nothing like that. He spanks you sparingly.’
“Yeah, and tells me it hurts him more than me.”
She looked at me. “You might not believe that but it is true. I’ve seen how he looks after giving you a spanking. He is very sad and unhappy about it each time. That’s why he doesn’t do it often.”
“Seems like he spanks me all the time.”
“It might seem like that to you but it isn’t really. He hates punishing you but sometimes it is necessary to make you see.”
“Maybe so but I hate him when he does.”
“That passes because you hate the punishment not the punisher. How’d we get on this topic? What I was trying to tell you is what I have finally learned.”
“About what?” I had already lost track too.
“What I have learned about life and God’s love for us. We’ve taught you about God.”
“Yes ma’am. He made us and He loves us.”
“Yes, that’s right. He wants what is best for us. He told us as much. For years now I have prayed that God would help me change your daddy into a happy man.”
“He didn’t do it, did He?”
“No, He didn’t. He finally let me know that it’s my job to change me. I don’t have the power nor the control to change anybody except myself. I finally realized that is what He had been trying to get me to understand all this time. So I began to change my prayer.”
“Since I could not change your daddy, I asked God to change me. I asked him to take my heart and give me the ability to be happy in any circumstance. I love your daddy no matter what but my trying to change him was making me a nervous wreck. As for your daddy, trying to get him to alter his entire life’s learning into something he was incapable of understanding was a real trial. He has become more and more frustrated by the job he has to work and then to come home to someone who was trying to force happiness into him was too much. His ability to cope with it all was coming to the end. That is when my prayer changed. That is when I asked God to change me. That’s when I asked Him to fill my heart with His love. That’s when I asked Him to help me to love your daddy like He loves your daddy.”
“But I heard you crying. Why were you crying if God changed you?”
“I think it is an ongoing change, Honey. It’s a tall order to ask God to change me over night. There are a lot of years and a lot of life lessons I have to unlearn. I knew when I asked for that change that it was the right thing. My heart felt lighter as if a burden had been lifted from me. A new understanding of your daddy came into my new heart. The love I feel for him became deeper. I don’t know how else to explain it.
“Yes, we still have arguments but they aren’t like they were before. Your daddy’s reactions might be harsh at times but I look deeper into his heart and see that he loves us. That love will always overcome the frustration and anger. Those are just reactions to events. The love is a foundation that is the rock-bed of our marriage and our family. I have complete faith that God will see us through. He has strengthened my belief and my faith. So I don’t let a few tears upset me too much and neither should you.”
She kissed me and placed me on the floor next to my play ranch.
“You go back to the ranch and let me fix us some lunch.”
I watched her walk into the kitchen those many years ago. I can still feel the slick linoleum beneath me on that day. I still see the tall pine outside that window. I still feel the pull of air through the house drawn by the window fan in the back window. I can still see the old stove that she turned the switch on. I can still see it clearly in my mind. I hear the words she spoke to me. They fill my heart with understanding of a God that she put her faith in. It is her words that placed in me a belief and a faith that there was a Jesus who walked the earth and that He was all they say He was and is.
How do I know that? I know because my mother has walked this earth with the love of God in her heart that she shared with every living soul she ever met. I know because she showed me it was possible to love as Jesus loved. I know because only He could have placed that love in her heart. It is a love that is too rare in this world. I only hope that someday the knowing of it will become the living of it, with God’s help.