My father wore a belt. I assume its purpose was to hold up his pants, but the belt had a much larger significance in my little mind, because it represented potential punishment. Both of my parents referred to this belt as The Strap, and in a strange way it seemed to be a permanent part of the family. The strap had only three functions: to instill fear, inflict pain, and as I’ve already mentioned, hold up my father’s pants.
If there’s an interesting point to this, it’s that my most vivid memories of the strap are tied to the use that occurred with the lowest frequency. I doubt my father hit me with that thing more than once or twice, yet it’s all I remember. I can still see him unbuckling it, pulling it sideways and sliding it through the belt loops. I can see him folding the strap exactly in half and holding it by the two open ends, that curved middle part arching out into the air, as if to say, “Get ready. Here I come.” And then the sting of leather against my legs, the little hop I’d make involuntarily, squeezing my eyes shut and bracing for a second swat that might or might not come.
For every instance when my father actually used the strap on me, there must have been fifteen or twenty times when he merely threatened to do so. The warnings usually arrived in the guise of a question: “Do you want the strap?” My mother asked this same question, I suppose when my father was busy doing something else and she was working the discipline shift. They asked it as though offering some kind of option. My instinct was to say “No, thank you,” but even in my perpetual state of confusion I knew there was more to it than that. If I immediately stopped doing whatever it was that had gotten them so riled up, I would be spared the strap. On at least one occasion, I must have failed to do so.
But here’s the real point. My father probably wore that belt every day of his adult life. I have no memory of that, I guess because his pants staying up or falling down held no prospect for producing red welts on the backs of my thighs. I recall that there were both explicit threats (“Keep it up and you’re going to get the strap”) and implicit ones (“Do you want the strap?”) What I remember most is what happened the least: actually getting hit. Is this unfair? Yes. Is it unusual? I don’t think so. And it causes me to wonder, what will my son remember?
I’m pretty sure I know.
This happened nine years ago, when Shaun was seven. I have to remind myself of this, because nine years go by like somebody is sitting on the fast-forward button, and because he mentions the incident so frequently that it seems as though it happened last week. It had been snowing for two days, that crazy, non-stop, wind-blown snow that leaves bare spots on the lawn and five-foot drifts in the driveway. Our car was buried. All five of us — my wife and I, our two daughters, and Shaun — were outside, working like a bunch of ants trying to restore some order to our little world. The ability to get out was critical, as we all had important things to do. And we were probably low on potato chips.
It was cold and no matter which way we turned the snow was coming straight at us. I was holding a light household broom and sweeping off the hood of the car. Everyone else was trying to shovel, or at least remain upright. Then, standing about three feet away, my son made the curious decision to throw a snowball directly into my face. It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened, and by then some of the snow had already begun to work its way inside my hood and down the back of my neck. As Shaun turned to run, I clipped his butt with the broom. He was wearing padded snow pants and a heavy coat. The broom was covered with snow. He was also covered with snow, and was moving away from me. I caught him flat with the brushy part of the broom and it made a loud thwap, something like the sound of hitting someone with a pillow. He laughed. His sisters leaped to my defense, never willing to let an opportunity pass to yell at their little brother. And that was the end of it, except for about two more hours of sweeping and shoveling.
Today, if you ask Shaun to recall some event from his childhood, there’s no mention of the thousands of hours we’ve spent doing homework and school projects, and studying for tests. There’s not a word about playing baseball or basketball or soccer, the many vacations we’ve taken, or the seemingly endless Pokemon movies, television shows, cards, toys, and conversations I endured. What he seems to remember most vividly is the time I hit him with a broom.
A couple of years before the snowball incident, we’d had a similar episode while doing yard work. This time it was a scorching hot day. I was pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks over bumpy ground and struggling to keep the load from tipping. Suddenly, something hit me in the back of the head. It was Shaun’s toy, a bright orange hard plastic ring about eighteen inches in diameter. The ring was meant to be thrown like a Frisbee, but it could fly much farther. How much farther, we were both about to find out. Exasperated, I set the wheelbarrow down, picked up the flying ring, pulled back, and flung it with all my might. It took off like it had been shot from a bazooka. Traveling at a forty-five degree angle, it didn’t arc like most thrown objects. It kept going in a straight line, higher and higher, as though it couldn’t care less about gravity or wind resistance. Shaun and I just stood and stared. Our eyebrows rose, our jaws dropped, and our faces telescoped forward as we watched the spinning ring slice through the air, receding as if in slow motion. Seconds later it was still going, now just a speck in the sky. We looked for the ring that evening and a few times in the weeks that followed. Months later, when the leaves and vegetation had shriveled and blown away, I said on several occasions, “Hey, I bet we can find that thing now. It’s orange. It’ll be easy to spot.” We never saw it again.
Someday, I’m almost certain, someone will ask my son, “What was your father like?” And he’ll remember my worst moments, or what seemed to him to be my worst moments. I’m afraid that’s all he’ll remember. I suppose if I could go back and undo things, I’d resist those reflex responses. Maybe instead, I could have presented him with a set of options: “Do you want the broom?” and “Do you want me to fling that stupid thing into low Earth orbit?” I didn’t do that, of course, and what’s done is done. I can’t change the past. However, I console myself with one thought: At least I didn’t wear a belt. Shaun should keep that in mind, and be grateful for this shred of good fortune. But I’m not counting on it.
* * * * *