My story “Flying Butter Dishes” appears in the 2015 anthology “Only Trollops Shave Above the Knee“. This collection of parenting stories was edited by Crystal Ponti at Blue Lobster Books.
Or read it here:
Flying Butter Dishes
When I threw the butter dish across the room my mother turned around just in time to see the beautiful blue porcelain shatter against the dining room wall. I don’t remember aiming for my mother’s head with its elegant, tightly-wound hair bun. I’m sure I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I just recall being angry and upset. Seventh Grade, with its social cliques and expectations, was the worst year of my life and I took my frustration out on my poor mother.
“I hate you,” I screamed, the way I had seen people do in the movies.
She had just told me that I could not wear the black lipstick that all my friends were wearing.
“I hate you,” I repeated, as if she hadn’t heard me the first time.
“You are a monster!” she said, biting her bottom lip.
Then she began to cry.
“You’re not my daughter. You couldn’t be my daughter,” she said. “You are too disrespectful.”
For a brief instant, I wondered if she were right.
Maybe the hospital had made a mistake thirteen years before. Maybe some neglectful nurse had put me back in the wrong bassinet after a feeding. Maybe I really belonged to my best friend’s mother, Mrs. McFarland, who was blissfully young, wore snappy, white tennis skirts and drove a red convertible over the speed limit. My own mother, already gray-haired, usually wore conservative clothes and didn’t even have a driver’s license. She was old-school European, and fussy in ways that no other American mothers seemed to be.
“You’re ground up,” said my Mother, snarling at me like a rabid dog.
“You mean grounded?” I said, with a sense of linguistic superiority.
At least I could speak perfect English, even if I threw butter dishes.
“Yes. Grounded. That’s it,” she repeated. “You may not leave the house except to go to school.”
I immediately called a friend, perhaps the McFarland girl with the cool mother, and I began to complain vociferously.
“I can’t go to the party on Saturday night. The old lady is ticked at me.”
“Whadya do?” asked the friend.
“Lost my temper,” I said, “Again.”
I basked in my friend’s sympathy until my mother overheard me.
“The phone is off-limits too,” she announced. “Everything is off limits until you behave like a decent human being.”
That night she came up to my room on the pretext of drawing the shades. She sat on the edge of my bed, wedged up against the unraveling stuffed toy elephant that I had cherished since childhood. She smoothed the bangs on my forehead with a cool hand and said goodnight, as if I were a little girl still needing to be tucked in instead of a young adolescent with a chip on her shoulder.
“Your behavior….,’’ she said, “I detest it. I really do. But I still love you. Never forget that.”
I don’t remember if I told her that I loved her too. I probably turned my head away and gave her the silent treatment.
I was that kind of teenager.
The punishment only lasted a week or so. Not long enough for me to actually become respectful, that’s for sure. I kept fighting with my mother, off and on, until the morning I left for college.
Full truce didn’t come until I was almost twenty-five and pregnant with Child #1. My mother was the only person, besides my son’s father, who was as happily obsessed with the baby as I was.
After he was born, she called frequently, wanting to hear all about him.
“And he blows kisses, does he?’’ she’d ask. “He’s so advanced!”
Even though we were living over a thousand miles apart, long before Skype or email, we managed to communicate frequently and well. She’d send me money for plane tickets to come home just for the pleasure of seeing me and my little guy. The child was docile and precious. I loved being his mother, and my mother enjoyed being his grandmother.
Child #2 was equally precious. But before long, he showed a very strong will and a mischievous spirit. He was only four when he threw his first butter dish. (Which wasn’t really a butter dish. It was a plastic bowl of oatmeal, but, after taking aim, he displayed the same fiery temper and lack of remorse as I once did).
It’s not possible or practical to ground a four year old. He has no real social life.
I tried “time out’s” and “Go to your rooms” and red stars and no stars and all sorts of punishments. I tried bargains and badges and all the other stuff that the parenting experts advised.
I was at my wit’s end. A defiant child is a challenge at any age. And this one was not yet in kindergarten. (Did I mention that the pre-school suggested I keep him home for a while after he wouldn’t stop banging on the class piano?)
I confided to my mother about my frustration. And every once in a while she got to witness my little monster’s behavior for herself. No one forgot the day that Child#2, reaching the ripe old age of five, locked himself inside a rental car, with the keys dangling in his hand and a big grin on his face. No amount of cajoling or threat could get him to open the doors.
“I’m going nuts! This kind of parenting isn’t fun at all,” I complained to my mother.
“I know what you mean,” she said.
I don’t think I really thought about my own horrible incident with the butter dish until a few weeks later my mother sent me a little quotation, handwritten on an index card.
“Children need love the most when they deserve it the least.”
And there it was. The wisdom that my mother had been silently imparting for decades.
I knew immediately that she had experienced with me exactly what I was feeling with Child #2. Exasperation, pure and simple. Complicated by feelings of inadequacy. What kind of a pathetic mother am I? Plus overdoses of all the other bad stuff. Fear. Guilt. Anger. Shame.
There were differences, of course. I hadn’t really gotten on my mother’s nerves until I was eleven or twelve. I had been a manageable, though impish child. It was only as a pubescent that I became a complete brat. Selfish and nasty.
Child #2 was never a brat. On the contrary, he was sweet and kind. But he was impossibly headstrong. He drove me crazy before he was out of diapers, but mercifully, he was quite well-behaved by the time he hit Middle School.
My mother’s little index card became a mantra for me. Whenever my difficult child pulled and tugged his way to glorious independence, causing me to tear out my hair, I just kept trying to give him one message, the same message that my mother had tried to give me. I love you. Not your behavior. But you. Always. Forever. Even when it is hard for me to feel much of anything. Even when you don’t deserve much of anything. I love you, unconditionally.
Is there a more important lesson that a mother can give?