When you are a child, the world can be a frightening place, especially if enhanced by old-fashioned parenting that employs fear to control a child’s behavior. My mother was a master at fear tactics, bless her soul. I, her daughter, lived in fear.
Once, Ma told me to stop sucking my thumb because it would rot and end up looking like Uncle Johnny’s finger. One of my uncle’s index fingers had been injured and the nail grew from the shortened digit like an ugly yellow claw, thick and pointed. I was petrified that would happen to me. And every morning when I awakened to find my thumb stuck deep inside my mouth, panic would eject me from my blankets. What relief to see my thumb had not become disfigured during the night, especially after reciting that bedtime prayer “…if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take…” I was alive and my thumb was intact.
As a child, I was always falling down. Maybe I was just a clumsy kid, or maybe I was running too fast for my chubby little stumps. Whatever the cause, my knees were in a perpetual state of scabbing over. I should be grateful that my mother likened her first aid skills to that of a “practical nurse” – but I wasn’t.
How clearly it comes back to me – sitting on the pantry counter where Ma would have plopped me in order to examine my fresh wounds. Then out would come the peroxide, mecuricome, alcohol, gauze, and thick white adhesive tape. The command was always, “You better hold still or else!” Then she’d go to work making sure the cuts were impeccably clean. Suffice to say I considered it torture, though I never developed impetigo, which, of course, she always threatened I’d develop and then my legs would fall off.
Going to school had its own set of things to worry about, not the least of which was “cooties.”
Cooties, those tiny little lice that infested the heads of children, were to be feared. We all knew that only dirty kids got cooties. But I wondered, how did you tell if a kid wasn’t clean? Did you tell by how grubby their hands were? If that were the yardstick, then I’d fall into the dirty category. Or, could you tell by how messy their hair was? My hair was often a mess. Did that make me dirty and susceptible to cooties? The teachers at school added to our fears.
We were instructed from the first day of first grade never to wear other children’s hats or coats, not to let our heads touch one another, and absolutely not to share combs. Imagine my surprise when after dutifully adhering to all those warnings, I somehow got cooties anyway.
As my head hung over the claw foot tub, Ma poured hot water containing some evil smelling toxins into my long hair instructing me to “try not to breath,” thus ensuring that the cooties would be killed while my lungs would be spared. With my head wrapped in clean rags generally used to mop the floors, I sat on a stool crying my eyes out because I couldn’t return to school for seven days, days during which I’d endure more poisonous treatments.
When I did return to school, I was sure everyone knew why I had been absent. I felt their eyes staring at my long braids. But other kids suffered greater embarrassment. Boys returned to class with heads shaved and little girls who once skipped across the playground with ribbons bobbing in long hair now wore a short Dutch-boy cut.
But probably the worst thing a little child had to suffer through by far was visits to the dentist.
By the time I was fifteen, all my molars sported fillings. That means I spent a great deal of time having my teeth attended to by … dramatic music … The Dentist.
The dental chair was a medieval torture device. Climbing into that hard leather monster with huge drills dangling around one’s little head made palms sweat and hearts pound. “Open wide,” the dentist would command while holding what can only be described as a hook from hell. He’d probe the depths of my mouth like he was digging for clams.
His forays produced results as he announced the extent of my decay, “One will have to come out.” The fight or flight response had to be suppressed. Instead I prayed, “Dear God, make the dentist die right now!” That’s when I knew God only heard the prayers of children whose teeth were perfect – the dentist kept on breathing.
That night, I was allowed to forego the planned supper of liver and onions – evidence that there was some benefit to having teeth pulled, I surmised. The ice cubes Ma had made were all mine, she said.
As I sat on the sofa that day sucking on ice, a tremendous sense of relief washed over me as I thought, “I’m still alive!” Unfortunately, that was followed with dread that my thumb might still be destroyed that night as I slept, or that I’d die during the night and God would take my soul. Amen. Now, no wonder I have insomnia.
By Marilou Newell