Sunday, December 02, 2007

Twelve Children and Not One Public Kiss

They say that power is an aphrodisiac. To have power over anyone or anything is a heady and provocative sensation, akin to the effects of a powerful narcotic. Sometimes, people use their power over each other to express what they cannot put into words.

Most of us, however, have very little power to worry about. Our lives seem to be in the hands of unseen forces and we flounder about, trying to have some control. One might think we have power over our children, but that power ends during teenage. Then we only have Hope. We do have the power to quit one job and hopefully get another, but sometimes that is an uphill struggle. Our powers are limited to our financial ability to get where we want to go.

My father had a great deal of power over my mother, in that he could make her angry without trying too hard. Mom was a dedicated floor sweeper and, every day, she would take her broom and clean the old, worn linoleum floor in our living room. When Pop wasn't working in the fields, he would sit in his broken-down green upholstered chair and smoke his pipe.

Mom would sweep industriously and eventually reach the area around his feet. He would watch her, clouds of smoke rising into the air above him, and he would say, "Hmmph!"

This snort of derision never failed to halt her in her tracks. She would pause and look at him as he peacefully smoked his pipe. She would resume sweeping, and he would wait until just the right moment and once again would say, "Hmph!" There was a great mountain of derision and contempt in that brief snort.

She would pause again, stare at him a bit longer, then go on sweeping. Again, he would say, "Humph!" That did it! She would stop her task, glare at him, and demand to know what he was trying to say.

"Don't you sneer at me! I'm trying to get this floor clean and I've got supper to make and I don't need you sneering at me!" It was a tirade and she would keep it up, her face red, her voice angry. Pop, who had said nothing besides his derisive "Humph!" would put out his pipe, rise, and leave the house for the barn. Mom's outburst would continue for long minutes after he had left the house. She would finish sweeping and go into the kitchen to prepare supper.

When Mom was happy, she sang religious hymns as she cooked. When she was angry, she banged pots and pans in a cacaphony of sounds, like a collection of drums and cymbals in an all-brass band. What a racket! The noise reverberated throughout the farmhouse and echoed in the dark recesses of the cellar.

One day, I asked her why he could make her so angry. "Why don't you just ignore him?" I asked. "He's just doing it because he enjoys making you mad. Why do you let him do it?"

She stared at me for a moment, searching for an answer, then replied, "I get mad because he knows he can make me mad!"

Thus, we are all trapped in this circle of frustration. Those we want to respect and admire have a innate ability to hit us hard in the area where they know it will hurt us most. Whether it is a husband, a friend or a President, it is their ability to hurt us that triggers our emotions. If we could just not care, we could live a placid life of serenity. Because we care, we struggle and complain and become angry. Because they care, they make us angry to verify the fact that we will respond.

Pop would make Mom angry because he knew he could, because in some strange way, he knew that her response to him meant that she cared enough to continue that heavy work load, care for his brood of children, and provide him with the food she cooked on that black woodstove. He had to verify his power over her emotions to assure himself of her love.

For some reason, perhaps it was the generation they grew up in, perhaps it was the numbing work load of the farm, they never ever showed any affection for each other. Each did the chores assigned and their children took them both for granted, as though they were pieces of furniture or rocks in the farmyard, but never questioned why they never embraced, never expected them to do so.

I have often wondered what their lives would have been like had they been able to show affection openly and honestly, instead of steadily trudging on with their days in an endless work schedule, with all affection hidden in the bedroom and none available for the eyes of their children or the rest of the world. One doesn't have twelve children unless there is some attraction, some emotion, some love. But they managed to have them without anyone guessing their feelings for each other, without anyone peering into their hearts.