Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Chalk Line

(found this in my file of notes today)
     This morning, April 25, 1998, I realized at 7:30 in the morning, that a lot of my life has been lived in terms of the chalk line. The chalk line was drawn for me by my father probably 45 years ago. He sat me down, along with my two older sisters and drew a single line on the blackboard we used for games, after the religious instructions we received at 'Family Night.'  We children endured the lectures, but looked forward to 'Hangman' and dessert. On this particular night, Mother was absent as she was suffering from one of her frequent headaches, which made her dizzy and landed her in bed. The three of us were aware of the many things that triggered Mom's 'spells.' One of them was the way the neighbors burned their smelly garbage, making Mom sick because she had an extra sensitive nose (she was extra-sensitive in many ways) and anything that bothered Mom gave her a headache. We could always tell when a headache was ruling. Mom would get that pursed-lipped, furrowed-brow, set look and often she would tap her foot impatiently. On this Monday night, after the line was drawn (which obviously was not for Hangman because it was long and uninterrupted), Father began talking in extra subdued tones.
     "Do you see this line running all across the chalkboard?"  he asked. He leaned forward and looked at the three of us.
     "Yes, Daddy, we see it."
    "Kitty, do you remember when you chased Misty Gray Mouser all around the yard and caught her by the tail?"
    Of course I remembered. It was a startling event. When Daddy saw me waving the screaming feline around by the tail, he quickly scooped my bottom up with one of his enormous hands, releasing the cat, and waved me in the air by my bottom.
     "Do you see how this feels? This is how that poor cat must feel." The grip was so tight and the position of my body so unusual that I was sure I would always remember it.
     "I remember, Daddy," I answered." I held my head down, feeling shaky and sick to my stomach, just like I did after my bottom was plucked up into the air and spanked.
    Daddy picked up the eraser and erased part of the line. "Kristy, do you remember spitting out your whole dinner last night?"
    Kristy didn't say anything. She was timid and sensitive. She was also a fussy eater. Again, Daddy erased part of the line. When he came to Carolyn, Daddy just looked at her and said, "We both know what you did, don't we?" She nodded. He erased more of the line.
     There was a meaningful pause.  "This line is your Mother's life, and this is what happens when you misbehave." He erased the rest of the chalk line. We all sat in silence.
    Now, forty-five years later, I feel the impact of that statement and my whole life in connection to it. Maybe turning fifty has made me more contemplative.
     "What the f---!"  Saying these words would definitely shorten Mother's life if I said them out loud in her presence, and yet I have always done largely what I've wanted to do, not because I wish my mother's life diminished, but because I am in awe of how life just keeps going on, even when I defy family rules. People don't die when you upset them. People die on their own terms and how others view their lives has only the impact they choose......and yet, there is something in me that really believes people's lives are shortened if I displease them. Maybe they don't die, but something in them does. How else can I explain staying in unhealthy relationships way beyond the expiration date?
( am I still dealing with the chalk line?)


  1. Well, that has left me stinging this morning. I understand the game and had no intention of playing it today.

    Emotional blackmail of the vilest sort - attempting to control children with guilt and fear. And I always muse on why they kept on with the same approach since I think it fails to work more often than it works. It will intrigue me to learn about your own parenting style. I suspect it was quite different.

    I was not spanked or hit twice in my life. My father was not the martinet yours seems to have been, but he delivered his messages pretty powerfully. He had the strings and I was the puppet. Until I wasn't any more. In the meantime, my mother was usually in some other room with the vapors, refusing to participate in the family but then mourning that she didn't belong to the family.

    I'd submit you haven't erased the chalk line yet, or we wouldn't be reading about it. You were tremendously gritty to post this. I thank you for it. For I, too, suffer terribly from the Please Disease and this reminded me of some of the ways I was infected with it.

  2. Strange, when I saw the title and began reading this I was preparing for the chalk line as something to be (or not be) crossed. I was a little surprised when the line was rubbed out. I would have perhaps rubbed the end off it, shortened it, basically every time you cross the line you shorten your mother's lifeline a bit.

    On the whole I'm not against this kind of teaching. It can be effective and I've used the metaphor of a line (in the sand in my case) myself: that line represents your self respect – I was talking to a girl at the time – you can stand as close to it as you like, shove your chest out, look as pretty as you like, but do not cross it. It never helped. The girl in question threw herself at the first guy who would have her, a man, as it happens, about twenty years her senior. (Even I never saw that one coming.)

    My own thought now is that there are enough things in this life that are wrong – or if not "wrong" in a moral sense then at least detrimental to our mental or physical health in some way – without making up new things to feel guilty over and I'm one to talk, I feel guilty about everything, my kneejerk reaction to most things is to feel guilty first and ask questions later and all of that can be traced back to my childhood and wee talks like the one your dad had with you.

  3. Limes, - "The Please Disease." Never heard it called that, but I sure have it, along with a rebellious spirit, which doesn't make for a good orientation to life's challenges - but I DO think it has fueled the creative spirit.

    Jim - I don't remember which one of your readers is interested in the theme of 'revenge' in writing. Is it Elisabeth? I think the impulse is behind a lot of artistic offerings. We're saying, "look, Mom and Dad, you cast your spell, but it didn't take. I can do this. Look at me. Look at me, Mom and Dad."

    (quoting Elisabeth's profile) - "I’m keen to explore ideas about what drives the impulse to write, unconscious connections and the like. I’m interested in the text behind the text, embedded in the text and in readable theory in the area of so-called ‘life writing’ with its weave of fact and fiction." - ME TOO.

  4. Oh! I think I've just discovered another blog I'd like to follow ~ Jim's. For I, too, feel guilty about virtually everything. I'll take responsibility for the Civil War, if someone wants me to. Because I really am that "bad".

    Kass, you really gave me something to muse upon: I hadn't thought of it in the way you presented it - the combination of the need to please others coupled with the renegade soul. It makes one feel schizophrenic. Maybe that IS where all the spark and fire and need to express comes from.

  5. this post left me with my mouth hanging open. while i am not unfamiliar with the damage done by families to their members, i am still stunned by the sheer - i need a word here that doesn't exist-oblivion with which we raise our children. especially the highly sensitive ones-i was one myself.
    and while i'm at it, just what was your father's contribution to shortening your mother's chalk-line life?

  6. standing - he was a workaholic - never home. But remember, my mom is 95, so all of our misdeeds have not erased that line....yet.

  7. Wow, Kass and you're intimidated by my writing. I'm intimidated by yours. This is so powerful and wonderful and more besides.

    Have you read any Alice Miller, her Drama of the Gifted Child? She writes about parental abuse administered in the name of discipline and padagogy.

    I read this post and the whole time reading, my heart was in my mouth. I kept fearing the worst. The worst for that little girl being heaved through the air by a bully father who is trying to make a point. The only thing he doesn't realise is that all he is teaching her is that the bigger you are the more able you are to bully. This is a bit like a parent biting a child to teach the child not to bite. It's not an equal power differential at all, not a fair competition but still so many people consider it a fair thing, when to my mind it's abusive.

    Thanks for alerting me to this, Kass. With some tweaking it makes for a terrific short story, without the analysis at the end. For me it stands alone and what a brilliant title. It's so evocative.

  8. Hi dear Kass,

    I’m still in shock with your story, sometimes is still hard to believe how cruel parents can be. But we should also remember that to be a parent is not an easy task and they have to try their best while dealing with their own demons.
    Love the story and the picture too!!


  9. @ LimesNow – all new readers welcome. You might find this comment interesting on the point of guilt.

  10. Gabriela - I appreciate your comment because although I wrote this account, I do not harbor any resentment toward either of my parents. I wrote another post about remembering being tied to the slats of my crib
    but I can't be talked into feeling aghast about any of it. It just happened and there were plenty of good things to counter-balance the experimenting my parents did in child discipline.

    Jim - I went back and reread that comment. Such a rich exploration of the permeations of guilt and shame. Hope Limes reads it.

  11. Limes read it and sits crying at her desk while startled carpet technicians wonder what hit her. She was OK a moment ago. Such a well-expressed deep understanding. I'm pretty straightforward and fairly risk taking. I'll just say it: I'm very ashamed for some terrible things that were done TO me. I've been unsuccessful, so far, in shaking that shame. But I'm a work in progress. I'm not finished yet.

    Jim, I'll be checking in frequently.

  12. Ugh! I can't believe the things parents do and say to traumatize their children! There are so many ways to abuse children, and sometimes I think this kind of false teaching is the worst.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. If I had never been a parent, I would be wholly condemning your father's actions. However, I am old enough now to try to consider your father's circumstances with compassion. What pain and stress he must have been under as he tried to manage childhood behavior with the constant worry about a spouse struggling with illness so readily triggered. This is not an excuse for such behavior, just a compassionate observation.

    Life wounds all of us - some of us when we are very young, and often but oddly enough by those who love us the most. We are all on a journey of forgiveness and healing. It is so easy to judge and condemn others, until we find ourselves in the same circumstances. But I believe in a loving God who has hidden Himself (Isaiah 45:15, 54:8) but heals us and reveals Himself to us as we continue to seek, try, and love; refusing to self-destruct.

  13. Kass, I feel your pain. My own father was a very difficult man to be around. I spent most of my life avoiding him at all cost and that cost was quite high. He needed help, treatment, which he never sought and so his illness, untreated, caused him to emotionally abuse everyone around him. It took me a long time and some information from my mother to understand that my father was ill and untreated for his illness. The pain he inflicted was no less, but at least I have some peace that it "wasn't me." It was him.

  14. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon..... :)
    Chalk Line


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