Saturday, July 25, 2015

To Spank or Not to Spank? There Was No Question

In an essay entitled “Babysitting” written her freshman year of high school, Mom outlines some of her early philosophies on child care.  After explaining the ins and outs of babysitting know-how, she shares this little gem of wisdom:

“The other night I don’t spank the ones who can talk.”

Apparently, Mom’s  parenting paradigm was in place by the time she was fifteen, laying the foundation for her future mothering practices. And, even though the degree and severity of her discipline methods were a source of regret and some embarrassment in her later years, Mom made no apologies about the fact that she spanked.  In her mind, children needed to be trained in order to keep them safe and to help them develop necessary life skills. She didn’t quote Proverbs 13 or blame her upbringing in order to justify her mindset; it just was. Spanking was a quick and effective means to an end--the end being well-behaved kids. Sure, she’d “wallop” us a few times at home (but never in public--spanking in public was tacky and uncalled for); however, the point of any spanking was to keep us from misbehaving in the future, thus warranting another “beating” as she liked to call them. Her logic was simple:  You don’t want a beating?  Don’t misbehave. And while this may sound harsh or even abusive in today’s politically correct world, Mom felt that a child without limits was by far a bigger detriment to society than a parent to who swore, screamed, or spanked from time to time.

Before I continue, I need to make one thing clear: In spite of my mother’s loose use of words like “beat,” and “wallop,” along with her threats to kick our butts up around our shoulders or to mop the floor with us, the Cluff children were sometimes spanked excessively, but we were never beaten. Hitting a child in the head or face was unacceptable as was pounding on a child with a closed fist. In Mom’s estimation both constituted abuse--the very thought of which made her shudder. I remember one time, my siblings and I watched in complete and utter disbelief as Mom literally beat the crap out of a loaf of bread that had refused to rise and came out of the oven looking more like a defiant blob of dough than the golden, fluffy loaves we were used to. In her frustration, she punched and pounded the half-baked blobby ball, all the while cursing at it for wasting her time and money. And just when we thought she had given it all she had, she threw the floury mass into the garbage can only to pull it out again, throw it on the kitchen floor, and jump on it with both feet in true WWF fashion. She was pissed!--as she liked to say.  And I was grateful.  Grateful to know what a real beating was, and even more grateful knowing that she’d never beat any of us like she did that obstinate loaf.

Mom’s definition of a kid beating included a firm grab of the shoulder or arm, followed by repeated smacks to the butt with an open hand.  If you were lucky, she would lift you off the ground in unison with each strike. Not only did this give the spankee the sensation of being airborne, it also lessened the impact for the spanker, saving her from what I now refer to as the very painful (and sometimes difficult to explain) “Spanker’s Elbow.” It was a perfectly acceptable answer to our misbehavior and was her delivery method of choice--usually only lasting as long as it took her to “beat” us down the hall and shove us into our rooms. While it may be hard to believe, these series of spanks were not nearly as scary as the scoldings that accompanied them. In her fits of rage, Mom did say some awful things and much to her chagrin, got pretty out of control.  But, she never called us stupid or said anything to insult our intelligence during a rampage, nor did she ever threaten to kill us. That too was considered abusive and uncalled for (no matter how much she may have felt justified in doing so). On occasion, when we had pushed her to her breaking point, when she’d had enough of our “crap,” Mom was known to call us “ingrates” or “little shits” as she unleashed her frustrations on us, yanking and spanking while muttering through angry clenched teeth how she was “sick and tired” of our “bullshit.” In retrospect, the cathartic release of her emotion was almost palpable with every swat she delivered and every word she uttered as we made our respective journeys down the hallway of correction.

Mom always said her goal in spanking wasn’t to beat us up (or down if you will); her goal was simply to scare us so we thought twice about our behavior, thus becoming masters of self correction.  From time to time, when she felt her “beatings” weren’t having the desired effect--or perhaps she had broken a blood vessel in her hand--she would come at us wielding a wooden spoon or sometimes a spatula.  I believe this was done in an effort to “shake things up” if you will: add the shock and awe factor that would keep us on our toes. Eventually, all she had to do was yank open the utensil drawer, forcefully stir its contents, and just like Pavlov’s dogs, we were conditioned to be on high alert, scrambling to change our behavior and cover our tails (literally) before she got to us.

Did it work? Sometimes. Did we still misbehave?  Yes. Did Mom have to keep spanking us until we could out-run her? That’s irrelevant since none of us were stupid enough to try. But by the time we were agile enough to elude her tiger-like pouncing reflexes, we knew better than to cross her, and we did our best to avoid behaviors we knew would set her off...usually.

So, what exactly warranted one of Reb’s spanking rants?”  

Defiance, talking back, name calling, fighting with siblings, breaking (ruining or spilling) something whether deliberate or accidental, and laughing too much at things she deemed inappropriate were the top causes of spanking and discipline in our home.  All offenses were handled with swift precision, Mom swooping in when her eagle-like sensors overheard or detected any form of disrespect or misbehavior.  One such memorable swooping incident occurred when Todd decided to try out some of his new junior high talk by calling me the b-word while we were arguing in the kitchen on a sunny Saturday morning. Unbeknownst to us, Mom was listening from an undisclosed location--the flowerbed just outside the front room window--but her presence was made readily known when she removed her work gloves, flew into the house, and began beating his butt down the hall in my behalf. “Don’t. (Whap) You. (Whap) Ever.  (Whap)  Let. (Whap) Me. (Whap) Hear. (Whap) You. (Whap) Call. (Whap) Your. (Whap) Sister. (Whap) That. (Whap) Again!” (Whap, whap). If memory serves, that was the last time Todd was spanked. It was also the last time he called me the b-word...Correlation or Causation? It doesn’t matter. The behavior was eliminated. Reb had made her point, her reputation as "One Tough Cluff" secured.

Mom was all about intimidation, punishment, and extinction of unwanted behaviors, but contrary to common belief, she felt consistency was overrated as it lacked the element of surprise that flying off the handle afforded her--another tool she used in conjunction with spanking to “whip us into shape.” As we grew older (and bigger) and found her physical threats less intimidating, her verbal rants eventually replaced spankings. They were every bit as scary and delivered blows that often penetrated deeper than any swat to the rear we ever experienced.  However, after considering the cumulative crapload of nonsense five kids piled onto the woman--me being one of the worst perpetrators--I would rather not dwell on the verbal take-downs we all experienced (and probably deserved) from time to time, because while she was inarguably demonstrative in her anger, Mom was every bit as effusive with her thoughtfulness and affection. 

And, every now and a...decade she could laugh at herself and her explosive temper.

Upon realizing that she had lost it, beating a half-risen loaf of bread into baker’s-rage oblivion, Mom immediately burst into a furious fit of laughter--one we weren’t sure we should join her in, but eventually, in spite of ourselves, all five of us kids laughed with her...with caution. Likewise, some eight years later, after Todd had received his last spanking for calling me the b-word, Dad helped Mom find the humor in her disciplinary tactics when he played on the fact that prior to throwing Todd in his room, she yelled, “I don’t want to see your face the rest of the night!”  So, when it was time for dinner, Dad escorted Todd down the hall and to his seat at the table--a paper grocery bag over his head, covering the face that Mom had said she didn’t want to see. Todd’s bagged face and Dad’s giggling broke Mom’s anger, and again, she laughed at herself--smiling during the blessing on the food and smirking through our dinner conversation that night. I think the rest of us smirked too.

Yes, Mom was a dynamic woman. And just as her fierce temper was sometimes diffused with her healthy sense of humor, it was equally balanced with thoughtful gestures and her empathetic heart. She usually extended an extra measure of love and affection after she had lost her temper, often apologizing for her lack of control and any hurtful words. Scott recalls hiding from her as a little boy because he knew she was coming to apologize, but he “wanted to stay mad at her longer” and knew he couldn’t once she had said she was sorry. Why? Because Mom’s apologies, just like her rants, were heartfelt and sincere.  If she took the time to say she was sorry, she meant it. And we recognized it--even as children. We also recognized that couched within her apologies were messages that we needed to change how we acted because she never made excuses or allowances for our poor behavior. She "loved us too much to ever do that."

The bottom line is this: On a good day in the Cluff house, there was more hugging than spanking. More laughter than yelling. More complimenting than name calling. And, more than swearing there was...well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there was a lot of swearing in our home, but there was definitely more good than bad--and Mom was at its center. In her words, she and Dad “must have done something right, because all of you kids turned out so great.” And as far as I know, each of us kids has managed to follow her admonitions to “be better and do better” in regard to disciplining our own children. I suppose the true test will be to see what comes down the grandchildren pike, and more importantly, whether or not our children improve on our parenting imperfections that we, like Mom, readily admit we have.

We love you, Mom. Temper and all.  We love you. Thank you for teaching us to behave.

With love,

Your Little Ingrates

Reb’s Tolerance Guide

mild swearing = damn, hell, shit, piss (remember, she grew up with religion … and farming)

f-word = fart (use of the real f-word, along with the word “suck,” was not even a consideration)

off-limits topics = sex and potty talk (I got around this one by marrying a plumber)

BIG No-Nos that might warrant a swat:
giggling during prayer or flag ceremony, imitating/talking about bodily functions, making fun of the poor, elderly, or disabled, lying to her face, doing a half-assed job, wasting money on things you don’t need, ruining something of worth, and making excuses.

Annoyance No-Nos that did not go unchecked:
sitting atop a made bed, leaving wet towels on the floor, taking more food than you could eat, shoving newly ironed clothes in a drawer, leaving shoes where others might trip on them, forgetting to write thank you notes, clean your room, or brush your teeth, wasting time watching TV, and eating the last cookie.

Complaining was okay.  Pouting was not.
Smiling about accomplishments was okay. Bragging was not.
When hurt, crying was okay. Screeching "like an idiot" was not.
Recounting spiritual experiences was okay. Preaching was not.
Standing up for yourself was okay. Talking back to authority was not.

I can't help but imagine how different our country would be if more parents had my mother’s expectations...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

On Crushes and Dying Naked

Warning:  This entry is not for the faint in heart.  Family members (especially the first responders), please read with caution. This is a topic I have wrestled with for almost fifteen years now, and I hope my words will bring a measure of comfort.  But if you’re not ready, I understand.  That said, you may want to grab some Kleenex. Oh, and my apologies to Orvid Balls. While you were Mom's first BF, I just couldn't figure a way to work your story in to this post. Thank you for understanding...

Mom had three crushes in her lifetime:  Elvis Presley, Alan Jackson, and my dad. The first needs little explanation as I’m sure every girl in America who graduated in 1957 shared her sentiments. No, she wasn’t one of those screaming-like-a-lunatic fans featured in old video footage at one of his concerts (even as a teenager she thought their antics were “a bit much”--especially the ones who fainted or were nervy enough to throw their underwear on stage). According to Mom, “That was just plain ridiculous” and she "wasn't about to swoon over him like an idiot." But she did love his music, and whenever she had a chance to buy one of his albums or watch a TV performance, she took it. News of Elvis’s death rattled her. On August 18, 1977, just two days after his sudden and unexpected passing, Mom watched the live funeral coverage, commenting on everything from the stream of white Cadillacs to the number of roses displayed in his honor. During the services she complained about the gospel music she didn’t know (or like) very well but sang along to “How Great Thou Art,” all the while ironing clothes and lamenting the fact that her teen idol had died alone, naked, in the bathroom--an eerie foreshadowing of events to come.

It took Mom nearly a decade to get over Elvis, and by the early nineties, she had moved on to the sounds (and looks) of country music’s newcomer: Alan Jackson. Now in her fifties and still happily married to Dad, Mom made little effort to hide what would turn out to be a two-and-a-half-decade-long lust affair with the popular singer/songwriter. Just like a teenager, she had a poster of AJ hanging in the office downstairs, prompting one of her young granddaughters to refer to him as “Grandma’s boyfriend.” This elicited so much laughter from Dad that whenever the opportunity arose, he would place Mikele in front of the poster and ask “Who is that guy?” just so he could laugh all over again.  We knew Mom’s crush was serious when years after Dad’s passing she went so far as to attend an Alan Jackson concert--buying and securing tickets on her own, figuring out transportation and parking, and convincing a friend from work to attend with her--something she never did for Elvis.

In spite of Mom’s two crushes and her occasional mention of Mark Harmon and Dieter F. Uchtdorf--two men whose good looks were enhanced by crooked smiles and military uniforms--she loved Dad more than words could ever express. He really was her “one and only.”   When recalling the first time she saw him walk across the commons area of the Student Union Building at Utah State, Mom would stop short of claiming that it was love at first sight, but the satisfied smirk on her face indicated that it was the next closest thing. They officially met the summer before their sophomore year of college and were married a year later in the fall of 1959.

From the beginning, they complemented one another’s personalities. Dad was the comedian, cracking jokes, telling stories, and using self-deprecating humor to make others laugh.  Mom was the serious one, straight-laced and driven to accomplish the goals of their time: home ownership, a large family, church affiliation, higher education--all elements of the “perfect life in suburbia.”  And while she too had a quick wit and a healthy sense of humor, Mom could hold a straight face and was more about getting things done than she was about getting laughs.  She was the Bert to his Ernie. The Tim Conway to his Harvey Korman. If Dad was funny, Mom’s rolling eyes, shaking head, and failed attempts to stifle her laughter only made him funnier.

They were a balanced act, a team--a team whose championship performance was cut short by a devastating and very unexpected lunch-time discovery: Dad. Just out of the shower. Lying on the bathroom floor. Naked. And alone.

At first Mom thought Dad was playing a joke on her.  Surely, any moment now, he would open his eyes, look at her, and say “Gotcha!”  But the punchline never came. She had lost her one and only--never to laugh together again.

That is until…

Fourteen years after Dad’s death, I confided in Mom how upsetting it was to me that Dad had died “in all his glory.” Even as a grown woman, it was embarrassing to me--so vulnerable, so undignified--not the way I wanted to imagine my father in his last moments on earth.  

Then, I had a paradigm shift as a friend of ours was relating his own near-death experience. He shared the one funny thought that kept coming to his mind as he was having a stroke in an out-of-state hotel bathroom while away on business. Imagining the poor maid’s face upon discovering his body in the tub, Randy said all he could think was, "Wait a minute...I’m not cool enough to die naked in the bathroom.” Through somewhat slurred speech, he went on to explain that it was all the motivation he needed to get out of the tub and use his best “beached whale impression to get to the phone for help.” Needless to say, the room erupted in laughter, and I immediately thought of my dad.   

In my next phone conversation with Mom, I told her Randy’s brush-with-death story and let her know that he had provided Dad with some new (and probably much-needed) funny guy material to use on the other side.  “Can’t you just picture Dad walking around up there asking people if they were cool enough to die naked in the bathroom? And then telling them, ‘I was!’”  Fortunately, Mom thought it was just as funny as I did and agreed that Dad was probably using that line because “that was just the kind of humor he loved.”  Her laughter brought me as much relief as my new perspective did, and I will forever thank Randy Toone for his humorous account of a not-so-funny situation. I believe it brought my mother comfort as well. But unfortunately, it would be one of our last laughs together, occurring just ten weeks before Mom too would be found alone, on the same bathroom floor as Dad, fully clothed, her hair beautifully done, her dignity in tact.

It has been almost four months since my parents were reunited, their class-act championship performance resumed.  While imagining what their everyday activities on the other side might include, I like to picture Mom stifling laughter, rolling her eyes, and shaking her head when Dad delivers his “cool enough to die naked in the bathroom” line to all the new pearly gate arrivals who have yet to hear his (now overused but funny) line.I also picture Mom’s here-we-go-again face as Dad brags about the fact that his naked-in-the-bathroom death story connects him to the likes of Judy Garland, Jim Morrison, Orville Redenbacher, Michael Jackson, and of course, Elvis Presley. And with the mention of his name, I think I hear Mom sigh from the other side of the veil, or maybe even swoon...just a little.  


alan jackson.jpg


In Loving Memory of
Charles G. Cluff, Jr. March,1939-August, 2000
Rebecca R. Cluff September,1939-March, 2015
Randy Toone   May, 1968-January, 2015