Tag Archives: family

Penalty and Pain

They ran a mule team for plowing their fields and planting crops. Doing so was only as recent as the 1950s, but as Clarence said, “poor people have poor ways.” That was the time before they could afford a tractor, and the kids were used for brute labor. Southern farming families were still strapped for cash after the Great Depression ended, and each year’s yield paid the outstanding bank balances already past due.  from trumanlibrary.org

Needless to say, tensions ran high under such dire circumstances. Having five mouths to feed didn’t help matters either. Clarence was a good provider, if not a stoic man. The financial straits of his family fell hard on his conscience, and he tended to internalize his worry. The children pretended not to notice and went along with their chores as any good God-fearing brood would. Papa didn’t talk to them much but expressed his love with homemade gifts and a hug at Christmastime. Otherwise, they tried to stay out of Clarence’s way.

James Ernest had it the hardest. He was the oldest son still at home, as Lee had escaped to the military as soon as he was of age to enlist. Little Eugene would watch their work from the safety of the back yard, his little black dog trailing along behind him. He and the mutt hung on a dull section of the barbed wire fence separating them from the back pasture.

Eugene looked forward to working in the field some day, having no idea what the toil would do to his body and his happiness. He had the naivete to glamorize the hand-blistering hard work in his imagination because of his inability to partake in his few years of life. Eugene knew nothing of the drudgery from which Lee had fled their home. He only watched from their porch where Mother tasked his sisters with housework, hoping for the day when he could join the men from sunup to sundown.

Papa barked the orders out there, and they were meant to be kept. Each week started with a day of Sunday school and church service, followed by a big family dinner with the cousins and an evening at home in rest. They geared up for the remaining six days spent earning their keep, and James Ernest came to know what was expected of him. Whereas his stature was lean, his strength increased exponentially with each calendar’s succession. He produced an adult’s capacity from a growing boy’s body, his thin arms and sinewy muscles masquerading an extraordinary ability to drive the team alone.

He called to the mules, “On, Jack!  Up now, Jenny!” James Ernest was expected to do some things all by himself during harvest when Deacons’ meetings required Papa’s attendance at the elder council held in town. Clarence was well-respected in their small rural community, and placed a lot of responsibility on James Ernest in his absence.

James Ernest knew all too well the consequences of not fulfilling his obligations. He’d left home to go fishing with a cousin late one Sunday afternoon without asking permission. The bigger mule, Jenny, grazed in the pasture by the barn and sneaked her way past the loose latch on the stall where gain was stored. They worked the animals hard, so the greedy old gal stole more than her fair ration share. By the time James Ernest returned, Papa had already discovered how Jenny ravaged the crib and ate herself sick.

Mules usually have fewer feeding problems than horses, yet she was in bad shape and could’ve been lost to foundering. A lame mule was worthless, and days missed in the field due to the beast’s illness equaled what James Ernest felt on his backside later. The others knew of his punishment, and the girls cried when they found him sobbing and sore in a barn stall afterward. They’d never seen their brother so upset, and he pridefully sniffed back his tears swearing he’d get away from the farm one day just like Lee had done. That incident, among others, stuck in the recesses of his mind.

*****

Years later his wife would speculate why her husband turned out the way he had, what soured him along the way. In retrospect, she wondered what had gone so wrong. What was the inscrutable cause of his agony?  She’d met such a boisterous and happy young man straight out of the Army who turned into a different person in his later years — someone who let his anger go inward, one who grew sullen, introverted and gloomy. Once an admirable, competent, hard-working man, James Ernest transformed into someone — something — else. Alcohol added to his depression and agitated it into a toxic mixture that destroyed his family life.

During one specific outburst, his wife watched James Ernest’s face transmogrify into an unrecognizable fiend expelling consternation. Those hurtful words aimed to retaliate against an unknown opponent in his past but caught his wife in the cross-hairs instead.  Her weak ego couldn’t withstand his transformation and the resulting attacks. A recurring hateful ugliness ultimately cost him the love of his life.

In a more lucid state, James Ernest tried to explain away his behavior. Night terrors hinted at a disturbance deeper than any words could justify. He’d worked to overcome poverty, to gain financial independence and not live by the sweat of his brow. Reaching those goals, however, couldn’t conquer other demons of his past. He realized it was of little consequence but apologized to his ex-wife over and over.  A strong man’s facade dissolved into the countenance of a young boy.

Dejectedly he told her, “You just can’t understand … you don’t know. I can’t tell you everything Papa did to me.”

This post was generated by a weekly Studio 30+ writing prompt — Papa.  Studio 30+

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Life gets in the way sometimes

Half-way through the month of January already, and I am only now considering goal-setting for 2012.  Like the title says, busy schedules can make prioritizing a little fuzzy at times.  I read a simple idea for a New Year’s Resolution, passed along by missrepresentation.org, that is terrifically difficult to qualify.
Get healthy.
It is a great suggestion and should be a priority.  But what are the terms by which to judge your success?

MissRepresentation.org (what I’ll call “MR”) is a “call-to-action campaign that seeks to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize their potential.”  I love their concept and hope to follow that mission in my words and acts on a daily basis.  MR’s challenge to “get healthy” does not center around unhealthy weight and physical ideals but “inner health and safety.”

A great suggestion is to keep physical appearance out of the center focus and concentrate more on how smart, confident and happy we are!  How different our world, or even just the United States, would be if we celebrate more attributes of substance and not just attempts at physical perfection.

What a different view of being healthy. Developing our talents, or what is called “potential for greatness” in MR’s latest campaign, is quite a challenge. Naming even one talent is hard to do, as women are usually less likely to brag on themselves or even say they are good at something.  We are socialized to deny compliments, much less compliment ourselves (*blush* for shame!).

I plan to spend the next week at least coming up with new and inventive ways to help boost my friends’ confidence.  Paying it forward, if you will.  My good luck in life has brought me so many creative, dynamic, self-confident (if not self-effacing) women who deserve praise.  Their selfless acts in both their professional and personal lives help other people every day, most of which goes unrecognized.

At the risk of too much self-congratulation, I dare to say my talent I hope to nurture is writing.  I want to keep doing so in this new year, honing my craft being the main goal and exorcising demons along the way a great add-on.  Other healthy practices include continuing yoga for the inner balance I seek and expressing my love of my son and family throughout the journey.

While results are perhaps difficult to measure, success is felt within, and I have great hopes for 2012!

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