Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Unpleasant Memory: Dishwasher

It was 1975 and I was 5, creeping out of toddler-hood, looking ahead to the grown-up lifestyle before me---that bracing first day of kindergarten and its attendant challenges: really getting a grip on colors, on numbers past 10, nappy time on our little mats, not pulling the hair of girls, seducing the teacher, playing Seven-Up (you remember that, don't you?).
On this particular day I believe I was wearing burnt orange corduroys and a red and blue t-shirt. I was home. It was late summer; I was still virgin to how bittersweet that time can be for school kids, as the long summer comes to an end, the days of kickball, catching crawdads in the creek, aimless forays into the woods. I was not yet a school kid. But soon I would be.
Our long, galley-style kitchen was in its usual 6-ish flurry of activity, with Mom finishing up dinner (after a long day of work herself) and Dad in the bedroom, doffing his work clothes, starting, of course, with that constricting tie (quite wide in those days). We had what in any era would be considered an atrociously poor choice of carpeting (yes, carpeting in the kitchen): a strange burgundy-color with brownish honeycomb pattern. In places, little tendrils of the carpet stuck out, pulled and tugged on by the cats or possibly by Muffy, our mutt, whose stalwart love of peanut butter I shall never forget.
The wall near the kitchen table was covered in wallpaper that depicted a birch forest. It wasn't a pattern---it was, essentially, a 10' x 8' photo. I never really felt outdoors when we ate there; indeed, I felt vaguely oppressed by its insistent YOU-ARE-OUTDOORS vein.
But on this evening I felt so happy, so glad to be there, right then, with those two people I loved so much, even if I didn't yet understand what familial love was. Not understanding love but experiencing it nonetheless is surely the best way to feel it; it comes through unalloyed and unfiltered by the intellectual screens we throw up as disappointed adults, as hurt exes, as betrayed lovers.
My Dad, with his pleasant scent of pipe tobacco, the scratchy 5-o'clock shadow he'd rub against my cheek affectionately, his capable, mustachioed face. My Mom, with her tenderness and soothing singsong, her wonderful way of sidling up and squeezing my shoulder.
I wanted this, I wanted to be in the middle of this warmth.
Dad had come down and started unloading the avocado-green dishwasher (was there any other color then?). At some point he was distracted and left the kitchen. The dishwasher was agape, its door open and inviting me to sit on it. Which is precisely what I did.
Even my slight, 5-year-old frame (I hadn't yet cultivated the paunch I bear today, at 34) was enough to break it. The dishwasher door was broken.
This led to the unpleasantness.
Now, I believe in false memory, and I have no doubt that some details of this narrative are in fact false, colored by my greater sensitivity to detail and plain old projection. But I believe that my father (he's called Father when you're in trouble) actually unloaded that old cliché, "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you."
Was this my first spanking? I don't know. It's the first I remember. And it wasn't my last. Encrimsoned cheeks would be mine many more times, at home and at school. Corporal punishment enjoyed fairly widespread acceptance in 1975, so I certainly don't resent my father for the spanking me.Still, though, it remains here within me. A bad memory, my earliest. I don't want it anymore.

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