A Picture of Pain

Sean and I and the kids occasionally go for visits to my parents’ house. Sally and Bobby love their grandparents, and I enjoy the time with my siblings. My parents live in the country, so weekends at their house can be fun getaways. The last time we were there, though, I was stopped in my tracks.

It was a picture displayed prominently on the fridge. It was my mother, standing proudly in a jean jumper, pregnant with one of my many siblings. The picture was taken years ago, and it was the mother of my youth as I so vividly remember her. And there, plain as day, sticking out of the pocket of her jean jumper, was the paddle. The picture was taken while on vacation. She had brought the paddle with her, and kept it at easy reach for ease of use.

I remember that paddle well. All through my childhood, it lived in the drawer in the downstairs bathroom, and that was where she would use it. Sometimes, though, she brought it out of the bathroom to keep it close to her. And sometimes, as that picture so clearly reminded me, she even took it with us on vacation.

My mother’s primary tool for getting us children to obey her was that paddle. It was not her only punishment, no, but it was her primary one. I suppose that with the sheer number of children she had, all packed together as we were, she felt she needed something to keep us in line, to make us obey her. She was the lion tamer, and that paddle was her whip. Except that we were not lions capable of maiming a person. We were children in need of nurturing.

I remember being afraid of that paddle. I remember the sheer terror that paddle could cause. I remember how the fear crept into my bones, traveling down my spine. I remember being afraid of my mother. There was nothing lovely, or good, or worthy about that paddle or how it was used. That paddle was about instilling fear and causing pain.

And so, on this particular visit, I did something I would not have dared do a few years ago. I told my mom how much it hurt me to see that picture. I told her that that paddle carried no good memories for me, only horrific ones. I told her because I felt she needed to hear, to know.

It did no good. Instead of really listening, she spoke of the obedience that paddle instilled in us children. I tried to explain that I value traits like compassion and cooperation rather than obedience, and that obedience is not the be-all end-all she thinks it is, but she launched into a discussion of the value God places on obedience. When it gets to that point, with my mother, there is no real response, because my mother’s God is a God who rules through fear and the threat of an eternity of torture in hell. How do I speak against her use of fear and pain to enforce obedience when that is how the God she so esteems operates?

Unless my mother has taken it down since our visit, that picture is still there on the fridge. My mother’s proud, smiling face is still there, and that paddle is still sticking out of her pocket. I wonder if any of my other siblings, walking by and glancing at it, will feel the same pain I did.

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