Gravel crunched and popped under hard rubber tires. I woke up to the sound of a Cadillac sedan pulling up next to me. I rubbed my hazy eyes. It was my aunt Liz, and my mother, Jennifer. Jenni, everyone called her. I was only 14, but I can still see the faces and hear the words and feel the emotions of that day — my worst day.
My mother got out of the passenger seat and walked right past me. Sullen. Sullen is the word I’d use to describe her body language. I thought she must have been there to tell Jeremy, my older brother, that he forgot something or didn’t do his chores before he left. But it was also 1995 — there was no such thing as a quick text or call to say, “I love you,” or “Come home honey,” or “You forgot the sleeping bags dummy.”
Jeremy was the strongest of us boys, that was for sure, not just physically, but mentally. He wouldn’t wince or cry when my dad used to discipline us with the paddle. He would just grit his teeth, and I swear half the time Jeremy would smile.
Most of you will think my dad was a bad person. He wasn’t. His childhood, discipline was switches, leather belts, spankings, summer harvests, and 4:00am potato hauling with the ‘Hill Billies’. When my dad got angry at us, he would grab the fraternity paddle and we would scatter like buckshot into a gaggle of geese.
Back then, the paddle meant you had really messed up. Like really, really messed up. But that wasn’t the hard stuff. I didn’t mind the paddle, I usually deserved it. I knew what line I was towing with him. In fact, I thought I had figured out how to beat the paddle. I’d stuff my pants with towels or wear three pairs of underwear, or beg for forgiveness with fake tears. I was always good at talking myself out of the paddle or the occasional spanking.
Jeremy, well, not so much.
In our family, discipline and pain went together like English tea and milk. Anger in my dad built like a tea kettle. He was old school. There was no mental health research on what spanking did. Maybe he’d get arrested today. But I turned out okay. His anger would just build up and spill over and my guess it was because older generations didn’t talk about emotions. About their problems. About their marital issues. About their spirituality. About their financial woes. No, people pretended to live the American dream — angry as fuck.
To be fair, I’d never ask for a different dad, but I would have definitely asked for a different, lighter paddle. Maybe that makes me a martyr, but I can look back with self-awareness and understand why discipline looks different than it used too.
Post traumatic growth syndrome, I think they call it.
To keep up with my dad was foolish. I remember him shoveling all the snow from our 100 yard hill driveway in less than thirty minutes in a big puffy red coat, Wrangler jeans, and a Russian ushanka after a full of work in the city.
“Trevor, you want to shoot baskets?”
“Dadddd,” I’d say, playing Ice Hockey on the Nintendo. “Did Magic used to shoot in the snow?”
“You know the answer to that. He never missed a day.”
“I’ll be right out.”
My dad would shovel and push the snow like a maniac, until the sweat dripped off his nose and he’d unzip his coat, the steam rising from his chest and mouth like a train chugging up the Rocky mountains in the dead of winter. He’d stand there and watch me shoot, smiling. Those were always my best memories of my dad; the ones with him there. Content. Happy.
Now my mom, she was a special woman. She was a tender, loving mother that embodied Sunday peanut butter pancakes, endless trips to my sporting events, and best of all, she always fed me like a king. I loved my mom. But I always knew when she was off. Or upset. I could sense unease in her. She would always scream and yelp at all my soccer and basketball games and would hug me after each one — win or lose.
Mothers should be the definition of unconditional love — and she was. But every family is different. From the outside, a lot of the families I see, there always seems to be a good-cop-bad-cop scenario working itself out. My mom spanked me too, but her spanks weren’t half as bad.
If you were to ask my family what I was like, you’d probably get some funny answers. I was a goofy, introverted, a dreamer — an endless well of ideas and creativity and possibility.
I remember seeing the campfire smoke wisps trailing into the early morning sunrise when my mom got out of her Cadillac gingerly. She looked tired, her bones stiff as she floated towards us with dark rings around her eyes.
“Jeremy, please come with me,” I heard my mom say. I rolled down my window with a hand crank.
“Mom, what’s going on? Everything okay?”
She ignored me.
“Why?” Jeremy asked angrily. “I’m not going with you.”
“Jeremy, come with me. Let’s take a walk.”
I looked around — what the hell is going on? Why is mom even here?
I had slept in my brother’s teal 86' Chevy Camaro that night, reclined in the passenger seat listening to the 106.7 FM radio until my eyes had eventually shut. Jeremy walked towards her and said nothing. His shoulders sagged, his head lowered.
Was he in trouble? What did he do?
I squinted my eyes around the campfire, there were 30–40 beer cans scattered about.
He was in trouble — big trouble.
They disappeared into the dirt road and green forest of Fisherman’s Island. Thirty minutes and a lifetime later they walked back into view. Jeremy was stoic, his eyebrows pinching together like crab claws. I was standing now, confused by my cousins around the smoldering campfire.
Jeremy walked past us, got into his car, never looked our way, and put the Camaro in reverse and screeched away in a burst of dust and gravel without saying a word to us.
Where are you going?
I’m not going to clean these beer cans up!
I remember feeling an anvil drop into my sickening stomach.
I didn’t drink any beer, why should I have to clean up his mess? I wasn’t going to. I wasn’t going to help him, no matter what my mom said.
“Trevor. Come with me.”
I looked at my cousins hesitantly, whom were both my age. They both sat wide-eyed on tree stumps flipped around the campfire in a semi-circle. I was completely confused. I hadn’t drank. I was innocent. I wasn’t going down for this.
“Mom, I didn’t drink. I don’t even like the taste of beer.”
“Trevor. Come with me. You aren’t in trouble.”
My mom motioned to me. She was thirty feet away standing on the edge of the road, motioning to follow her. My mom was always put together but today she seemed disheveled and lost and worn out. She seemed beaten, not in the physical sense. Her great wide white smile was missing.
“Trevor, get over here now — I’m not asking again.”
I remember looking up at the sky and pinching back the well of water behind my eyes when she told me. I remember walking slowly, finding my footing, and feeling like I was going to faint. I believed in loyalty and honesty and truth. I was just a naive kid, but I knew this wasn’t true.
“Your dad and I need work. We need space to figure out our lives. Relationships are complicated. Will you go therapy? Will you talk to someone about this?”
I thought about it.
A therapist? A shrink? No way.
Anger pulsed hot.
“Trevor, how are you feeling.”
I said nothing. I just kept walking. It made sense. It made sense why Jeremy was acting so strange, drinking beer and staying up late and not listening to my mom. I thought of my dad shoveling snow alone in Flint, Michigan, trying to rebound for himself. I held back the pain of tears and walked forward.
Life would never be the same.