I’m guessing I was about six at the time – old enough to remember it clearly, old enough to know better, young enough to do it anyway.
My parents took my sister, brother and I to a performance of The Nutcracker. Nice, right? It might have been until I spotted some unmemorable Nutcracker trinket in the theater gift shop that I HAD TO HAVE.
I asked for it. My mother said no.
I begged for it. My mother said no.
I asked if I could use my birthday money to buy it. (Genius! There’s no way she could say no to that!) My mother said no.
I lost my shit.
In my crying, screaming fit of righteous brattiness I shouted that my mother had stolen my money from me.
Imagine this: In a moment of possibly insane parental optimism, you buy expensive tickets to the ballet for your family. Oh the music, the ballet, the magic! My sweet bright-eyed children will love it! Chances are your sanity has returned by the time you cross the theater’s threshold.
And then your child starts screaming, in a crowded theater, in the small community where you and your husband live and work, that you STOLE HER BIRTHDAY MONEY.
Kudos to my mother for not killing me. Kudos to my mother for somehow convincing my father to also not kill me, and to take me back home with them.
I recently recalled this particular scene from my childhood as I dialed Goodwill to see if they accept donations of gently-used children.
My kids’ shockingly obnoxious behavior is completely embarrassing. Behind closed doors, Luke calling me stupid is horrible. It makes me question his character and my shortcomings. But Luke calling me stupid in the supermarket? at the doctor’s office? in the playground? at a family gathering? in front of neighbors? Humiliation. Blood pressure spike. Prickly sweat. All sorts of thoughts that hold no resemblance whatsoever to I love my son so much and am so grateful to be his mother.
He does this to see what I’ll do. Which means that he is fully aware that I will be embarrassed. He just wants to see if I care more about throttling him or about appearing normal in front of other people. (This is where I should say that my reaction is totally consistent regardless of where we are. This is where I should say that as his mother my responsibility is to him alone, my own social standing and happiness be damned. So, let’s just pretend I said those things, m’kay?)
When I loudly accused my mother of stealing my money, over and over again, I knew very well that we were in public. I wanted to embarrass her. Of course she hadn’t stolen my money, but it was the meanest thing I could think of that might make some kindly stranger step in, tell my mother how horrible she is, and save me by buying me the trinket and possibly arresting my mom. To steal her adorable fancy-dressed daughter’s birthday money? For shame! She’d learn her lesson alright and she would never maltreat me again. Of course, at six, these thoughts weren’t quite so well laid out. It was probably more Captain Caveman-ish: Me mad! It her fault! Shame her! She bad!!!! Waaaaaaaa!
My mother did not kill me that day, or any other day for that matter. And she did bring me back home with her, albeit by dragging me unkindly through the parking lot while using her scary-quiet voice through gritted teeth. “You just wait until we get home!” Probably all that happened when we got home was me crying and quaking with fear, and my mother yelling something about something. That part I don’t remember.
Likewise, I have not killed my children and I keep taking them back home with me. I have a mean scary voice that when combined with gritted teeth has the desired effect of scaring the living shit out of them. My kids won’t remember every time they’re sent to their rooms or lose out on a toy or privilege They won’t recall the words that I scream at them when I’m screaming at them. (Let’s pretend I don’t do that.) But I bet they’ll remember The Look. I’m certain they’ll remember that scary voice. And I look forward to the day when they remember some specific incident from their childhood when they each acted like a tiny raging asshole, because they are dealing with their own tiny raging assholes.
In the end, our vindication does not come the way we imagine it at six. It’s not police at our door telling our parents that they’ll go to jail if they don’t get on board and buy us at least one Cabbage Patch Doll, since every other girl in the universe has, like, a hundred of them. Vindication happens much later. It’s when our own children experience the awful humiliation of having unhappy children in public places, the bitter disappointment of a special treat or surprise turning into a nightmare outing.
My mother will read this and tell me that it’s not about vindication. That she would prefer it if I never had to endure this stuff. But that’s not all true and I know it. No one drags her daughter out of The Nutcracker after that scene without wishing for her to get what’s coming to her one day. So, Mom, rest assured; I’m getting what I deserve. In spades.