I was my mom and dad’s only child. My dad was active duty with the US Army. For those unfamiliar with that term, it means my father’s full-time career was the military. For the first few years of my life I didn’t live in any one place very long, because my dad would be assigned to different posts (bases) around the United States. This is a normal part of life for military families.
I lost my mother to cancer when I was 5. The memories I have of her are sweet and kind, but unfortunately we just didn’t get to have a lot of time together in this life. After she passed on, I would go to day-care on post (again, that means at the Army base we lived on) after school until my dad was off for the day and took me home. That’s not really all that unusual, I think. Even in families where the parents are together, if they’re both working they often need help with child care.
And then for pretty much all of 6th grade, when I was 11-12, I was a latchkey kid. That term used to be more common, but what it means is that a parent has decided, or risked, that you’re old enough to look after yourself after school, so they just give you a key to the house and you’re by yourself until your parent (or parents) gets home. This was 1985-86 (I don’t mean I’m guessing what year, I mean that was the timespan that I was in 6th grade).
Now, I would like to say a few things in my dad’s favor. My dad is still alive and an important part of my life, but I’m using mainly past tense to talk about him here because these are memories. He’s one of the strongest people I have ever known, and I don’t just mean physically strong. I mean mentally, emotionally, and determination when something needs to get done. But like all of us, he had his limits. My mom’s death devastated him more than he ever was able to really show or talk about, and to be fair, a lot of that was his feeling that he needed to be strong for me. He was really kind and patient and did everything he knew how to take care of me.
That said, he just wasn’t cut out to be a single parent. He dearly loved me, but he was very career-oriented, and he was from a time when, right or wrong, it was widely assumed that the dad goes out and works and the mom takes care of the kids. I don’t believe for a second that my dad is or ever has been sexist. In fact, one of his commanding officers he respected and liked the most in his time in the Army was a female. So it wasn’t so much his mindset or beliefs that made it difficult for him to be a single parent, but rather that he just didn’t have any frame of reference or real examples to follow about how he as a father was supposed to raise me on his own. I don’t mean to say I was never happy as a young child; I was. But I was lonely, especially with the frequent moving around (which, as I said, is a normal part of life for military families) and my loneliness really hit its peak in my last year of elementary school when, as I said before, I was home alone looking after myself after school every day.
And then sometime during that year, I remember it happening but not exactly when during 6th grade it happened, my dad found out he was getting a PCS to South Korea. A ‘PCS’ in the military means ‘permanent change of station’, which means you’re relocating to live in whatever post/base they have assigned you (although it isn’t literally permanent, it’s like a year or whatever they assign for you). From what I understand, my dad would have had the option to take me with him, but he was already treading water trying to raise me on his own living in the United States. Transferring to a foreign country was, I’m sure, something he didn’t see as making an already overwhelming situation any easier. And I didn’t talk to him very much about it, but it was pretty obvious that my loneliness was taking a toll on me. Moving to a whole other country wasn’t going to make that any better, either.
One of the things about my family, and here I mean my whole extended family, is that they really instil in you that if you’re struggling with something, the responsible and courageous thing is to ask for help, instead of letting your pride get in the way and continue floundering in a situation that isn’t working. As I learned much later, my dad had been talking to his sister Karen for over a year, before even learning of his PCS, about whether it would be better for me to live with her. She was all for this idea, and eventually they both talked to me about it and I said yes more or less immediately. In fact, I said yes so eagerly I remember being worried that I might have hurt my dad’s feelings. This was far from my dad abandoning me. This was my dad doing what we all could see would make all of us happier.
My dad is the middle of 5 kids, and all the rest are girls. I’m sort of amazed that my dad managed to survive growing up with two older sisters and two younger sisters without going stark raving mad. In any case, Karen was the second oldest sister, and she was the one he was always closest to (he’s close to all of them, but she was the one who was always his confidant and most protective of him ever since they were little). As I later became aware, Karen called my dad literally every single day for over a year when my mom died to help him cope. She talked to me quite a lot during that time, too.
My paternal grandparents were from the South (ie, the south-eastern US), but they moved to northern California when my oldest aunt was a toddler, I believe, so that’s where my dad and his sisters all grew up. At the time all this transition in my life was taking place, my grandparents and three of my aunts all still lived in California, and the fourth of my aunts lived in Las Vegas, Nevada.
There is quite a bit of southern influence in my family from my grandparents, and both Grandma and Grandpa had a Georgia drawl when they talked. For example, southern hospitality is a big thing with us. This meant that when I visited one of my aunts and her husband and my cousins, they fussed over you and treated you like royalty and fed you until you literally could not take another bite.
And there were some other southern traditions that were also practiced among my extended family, which I’ll get to momentarily. But let’s just say that ‘Go cut me a switch!’ was a phrase that my dad and his sisters were familiar with growing up.
I don’t know what all exactly my dad and my Aunt Karen did about the logistics, because I wasn’t involved, but essentially they worked it out so that Aunt Karen and her husband Steve were my legal guardians, which they would need to be if I was living with them, and we timed it so I moved in with them a few weeks before I started 7th grade. That worked out pretty well for me, because 7th grade is the start of middle school, and so everyone in my grade was starting a new school, not just me. This was the 1986-1987 school year. I was 12 when I started the school year and turned 13 part way through.
Even though I had lived away from her, sometimes far away, I had always felt a special personal closeness to Aunt Karen, probably as a result of my dad’s relationship with her. Her immediate family was her husband, my Uncle Steve, their son who was 2 years older than me, Mike, and their daughter who was a year younger than me, Rachel. They had always been my idealized image of what a family was, like a perfect TV sitcom family, but in a good way. Over the years I came to see they were far from perfect, but if anything it made me admire them more: that they were regular people with problems and conflicts who still held together and loved each other.
Like my dad and me, they were fairly religious. We went to church on Sunday on a regular basis and said prayers and whatnot, but it was more that religion was one aspect of our lives than the dominant characteristic about us. We saw religion more like a source of guidance than unquestionable truth and authority. In fact, I would say that’s a fair description of my whole family’s attitude, Grandma and Grandpa included.
I mention this to give an idea of what my family was like overall, and also for some context about their views on discipline. Sometimes people get an idea that if someone goes to church and reads the Bible, they spank their kids because they think the Bible tells them to. In my family, and again I mean my extended family as a whole, they saw what the Bible says about discipline more as being consistent with their feelings about discipline than the reason they disciplined the way they did.
My dad never spanked me that I can remember. He was the only one among his siblings like that. All of my cousins were spanked, even into their teens, and my dad and my aunts were as well when they were growing up. That wasn’t the only type of punishment my aunts used in their individual families, meaning with their own kids. And they each had their own little procedures and ways of doing things. But basically everyone in my extended family believed that spanking was one of the tools that parents have available to use in raising children, and an effective one. And all of this was in the setting of loving and tight-knit families. I never heard about, and never personally saw or heard, anything I felt was abusive, either physically or emotionally. It was just strict but loving discipline.
Besides idolizing my extended family, and Aunt Karen and Uncle Steve’s family most of all, during my elementary school years (6-12 years old) I also was influenced a little bit by some older TV shows, like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie’. The re-runs of these shows always seemed to me to be really warm and wholesome and, like my feelings about my aunts and uncles and their families, idealized the way family life was portrayed. And every once in a while, there would be an episode in shows like the ones I mentioned where some otherwise good kid had misbehaved and ‘needs to get a whippin’. They wouldn’t show it on screen, for course, but they talked about it. So I associated the occasional reference to physical discipline with what a warm and wholesome and loving family was like, during a really lonely period in my young life.
Fast forward to fall 1986. I had been living with Aunt Karen and Uncle Steve for a couple of months, and was a few months shy of my 13th birthday. I liked my school, and I was making friends. Middle school can be a hard time for girls, but all things considered things were going pretty well for me. I was having fun with my cousin Mike, even though he was in the phase when many teenagers get sulky and moody. And my younger cousin Rachel practically worshipped the ground I walked on, and it felt kind of nice to have someone look up to me. And Aunt Karen and Uncle Steve were so nice to me and had turned the extra bedroom in the house into my room.
The only thing that was really bothering me was that I still felt like a guest. A guest with my relatives, sure, but I still felt like I was visiting someone else’s family. It was like everyone was still trying a little too hard to make it a big deal that I was there, instead of just treating it like normal life that I lived there now. That was what I really wanted, but I didn’t know how to express it at the time. I know that everyone was wanting to make sure I felt welcome and was happy, but this way of acting almost like every single day was my birthday was getting old and I just wanted to be part of the family.
Aunt Karen also put up with more nonsense from me than she probably should have, but I understand that she didn’t want to seem all strict and bossy to me when I was still getting used to all this. Mike and Rachel definitely did not get the kind of leniency I was getting, and there were a couple of times I heard a hand or a wooden spoon on someone’s bottom and crying through a closed bedroom door. Now, I definitely did not want that to happen to me, and I did not envy them for getting it. What it did, though, is reinforce that I’m not really one of the kids in this family. I’m just staying here.
And then one evening, Aunt Karen was doing dishes after dinner and Uncle Steve was putting them away, and Mike and Rachel and I were watching TV and intermittently helping when asked to do something. The kitchen and the family room were sort of together in one big room, with a kitchen counter separating the two. Like I said, I was helping do little errands and put various things away, too. I had started volunteering to do chores because it made me feel like I belonged, and by the time this particular evening had come around we had finally gotten to where it was taken for granted that I helped around the house just like Mike and Rachel did. I really can’t fault my aunt and uncle for trying so hard to make me feel welcome that they ended up making me feel like an outsider. We were all new to this situation and figuring it out as we went.
In my early adolescence, ie the exact time frame we’re talking about here, I went through a really sarcastic, smart ass phase (before I later went through a moody, defiant phase). In my 12-and-a-half-year old brain, I thought I was the funniest, wittiest person on Earth, and that the job of adults was to be the straight man while I said various clever things to outwit them and then a laugh track would play in my head. I wasn’t being malicious about it; I was just being a little smart mouth. Even still, it was being really super sassy and disrespectful.
So I was standing in the kitchen and I had just put some pots and pans away, and over at the kitchen sink, Aunt Karen asked me to please (and she did say please, like she always did) hand her another dish towel. I had no objection to helping out; remember, I volunteered to do it.
But this time, I decided to be a comedian, and said, “What, is a dish towel too heavy for you?” And then I cackled like a little brat because I was so pleased at my own humor.
Then Aunt Karen said, “Sweetie, I would really appreciate it if you helped me out when I ask.”
And then I remember feeling very smug and pleased with myself as I came up with the punchline, which I didn’t deliver in a defiant way, but rather in the most sarcastic tone I think I have ever heard come out of my own mouth: “Yeah, and I would appreciate it if when I tell you to shut up, you shut up!” Ha ha, I was hilarious!
I remember Mike and Rachel turning on the couch to look at me and their eyes were big as saucers. They had never witnessed someone signing their own death certificate before.
Aunt Karen didn’t yell at me, but her voice was very, very firm: “Go to your room, young lady, and I will be there in a few minutes to deal with you.”
All of my insides felt like they had turned into ice. I had never been in trouble before. But I knew exactly what was going to happen. Even worse, I also knew how it was going to happen. I had been around Mike and Rachel enough to know that when they got in trouble, there was no obstruction or protection between the instrument of correction and their behinds.
In addition to my recent adolescent foray into amateur stand-up comedy, I had also started getting self-conscious about my developing body. In particular, about a certain rear area. I was so terrified about what I knew Aunt Karen would soon be doing to me that I got kind of tunnel vision and I couldn’t move. Aunt Karen wasn’t having it, though.
“I said go to your room. Right now.” She pointed to help me with directions.
However it was that I managed to force myself to walk there, once I got to my room I started panicking, until I got a really genius idea to pretend I had fallen asleep. I used to wear sleepshirts a lot around this time, which is sort of halfway between a T-shirt and a nightgown and comes down to your knees. How I managed to change for bed that fast I don’t know, but faster than I could probably say it out loud, I was in my nightshirt, under the covers, and had the lights off. I was lying on my side with my back to the door in bed to aid in my deception.
In what seemed like 3/4 of a second later, my light snapped on and I heard Aunt Karen close the door to my room behind her. She told me to get up, then she sat on my bed and made me stand in front of her for my first scolding. Aunt Karen started off saying she loved me, and she was really happy I was here (here’ meaning living with them), but, “You’re part of our family now and you need to be obedient.”
I instantly burst into tears. Aunt Karen assumed it was because I was afraid of getting a spanking. That wasn’t it at all, even though I was very afraid of that. I started crying because she said I was part of their family. And I wasn’t crying because I was sad.
I really don’t know what she said after that. I didn’t hear it at the time. All I could think about was, ‘you’re part of our family now’. I caught something about being disrespectful and, “You do not talk to me or Uncle Steve that way.” Then blah blah blah some other stuff and, “You need to learn a lesson and I’m going to give you a good bare bottom spanking” (I do remember her saying those exact words). I almost didn’t care. ‘You’re part of our family now’ is the only thing that mattered to me.
Obviously something must have happened in between, but the only thing I remember, and the only thing I noticed at the time, was one moment I was standing in front of her being scolded, and the next moment I was lying face down over her lap on the bed and she was pulling my nightshirt above my waist. Then she slid my panties halfway down my legs. I was overwhelmed and in a daze from everything, and the last thing my ears caught her saying was something about wanting me to think about why I was being punished. Then I started feeling these steady, firm slaps and my bottom started to sting and burn. I had already been crying from the good thing she had told me, and now I was crying on top of that from the painful thing she was doing to me. I remember feeling crushingly embarrassed, too, from both the fact of being spanked and that my buns were bare for it. But this dreamy daze I was still in kind of got mixed up with that. I heard myself whimper and yelp and cry and could feel how bad it hurt, but at the same time, I kept having this feeling that she was taking care of me. That she was being a mother to me. She’s doing this because I belong to her.
After some amount of time; five minutes? An hour? Who knows? my panties got pulled back up for me and I was gently helped to get up. Aunt Karen stood me in front of her again, and asked me if I understood why she needed to do that. I couldn’t talk; I was right back to hearing ‘you’re part of our family now’. I put my arms around her neck and just latched on and kissed her on the cheek, and she rocked me for a while.
I lived with Aunt Karen and Uncle Steve until I got married. In a very real way, I have had two mothers. One of them gave birth to me. The other raised me. That was my Aunt Karen.
I hated the way she had punished me that evening, and I hated it every time she did it from then until they stopped in my late teens. But I don’t remember one single time feeling like it was unfair and I had not earned what I got. And as miserable as it was while it was happening, I always felt that she was taking care of me because I belonged to her.
Caroline Richards. Caroline is happy for readers to contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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