Monday, April 23, 2012

The Child Who Wasn't Told "No"

(As promised in a comment on Juniper Russo's article:

Once long ago, when I was a little girl, there was in my home town a legendary character, who was still alive, who was The Old Lady Whose Parents Never Told Her "No."

According to the legend, she had had two older siblings whose parents made them stay at home while they went into town. (In those days most people lived on farms; going into town was a rare treat for children.) Maybe the children played with matches, or maybe soot caught fire in the chimney above the smoldering wood stove in the kitchen. Anyway, the parents came home to the smoldering remains of their little all-wood house. The last sight they had ever had of their children was of the children begging to go into town, while they said "No." So they made a vow that if they were ever allowed to have another child, they would never say "No" to that child. That child would have everything s/he wanted, when and as s/he wanted it.

They had several other children. Only the eldest of these children really grew up without being told "no." Somehow she learned what the word meant, and apparently she had no compunctions about saying it to the younger children. Apparently she often said it with a slap. Two of those younger children were also still alive, by the time I was born. They didn't seem to like their sister much.

The sister--call her Ermyntrude, because that's a name I've never heard of any living person actually using, and if there is one out there somewhere I apologize--didn't have to do any chores around the house. Going to school was also optional. Ermyntrude was reasonably bright and wanted to learn math and reading, so after other little kids started going to school Ermyntrude decided she'd like to go too. However, early in grade four, she was put in the Corner of Disgrace for slapping another, smaller fourth grade girl. After that she didn't want to go to school. Her parents said she didn't have to go if she didn't want to go. By the time I came along, Old Miss Ermyntrude knew how to read, write letters, count change at the store, and so on, but even little kids could recognize that some things she said were ignorant.

Because she didn't have to work with other people, or work at all, Ermyntrude never learned to do several things other people did. She didn't have friends. Even her own grandchildren thought she was hard to like. Still, early in her teen years, Ermyntrude decided she wanted to be a grown-up, which in those days meant be married. The man she picked was thirty-five. He was no longer alive by the time I knew Miss Ermyntrude, and she never talked about their courtship. The story was that she barged up and demanded that he marry her, and he said yes because he wasn't rude enough to say no.

They had three children. There were stories about how horrible a mother Miss Ermyntrude had been, how brutally she'd beaten the children for being sick, and how any child might have been sick if all it had to eat was her cooking, since she'd never learned how to cook very well. That she'd never learned to cook very well I know was true. Miss Ermyntrude could even ruin biscuits made with Bisquick. The children, by now middle-aged adults, didn't look scarred or stunted. Most people their age would say they had been "beaten," or spanked, as children...

It was said that, when Miss Ermyntrude's husband had dared to disagree with her, saying things like "It's time to go home now," she used to beat him up. People said they'd seen her knock him down and pound on him in public. He couldn't even defend himself, because he was a gentleman, and in those days the rule was that a gentleman never hit a woman. Ladies and gentlemen never got divorced, either. After a few years together, the couple didn't go out much. It was said that, when the weather prevented him from doing anything around the farm, Miss Ermyntrude's husband used to lock himself in the shed to get away from his wife's nagging.

These stories were told by way of explanation of why Miss Ermyntrude had no friends and didn't go to church. The people who told these stories were not always the most reliable sources. Good stories have a way of growing, over the years, and when so-called Christians aren't very nice to someone who has no money, they usually look for some excuse not to like the person. However, I came to believe that there may have been some truth in some of the stories about Miss Ermyntrude's awfulness when I saw her walk into a grocery store and greet another old lady by calling her a name I'm not going to type on this web site. The other old lady replied with another obnoxious word. Miss Ermyntrude went over to the produce rack, picked up a summer squash, and threw it at the other old lady's head.

I was led out of that store in a hurry, so as not to see something adults didn't think children needed to know was even possible, but of course I had seen it and have always remembered it. We didn't have food fights at school; we'd all been taught that wasting food was a fearful sin. And there were these two grandmothers, having a food fight. It was an unforgettable moment.

Miss Ermyntrude, herself, believed she had a brain tumor. My mother had retired from the "beauty" business, but still cut other ladies' hair at our house during the last few years of Miss Ermyntrude's life. Miss Ermyntrude used to point out a little lump on her scalp to Mother and me and say things like "My tumor feels as if it's bleeding." You can't feel a brain tumor on the scalp, of course. The lump felt like an aneurysm. Miss Ermyntrude died of a stroke. It turned out at the funeral that she'd been only about seventy years old, but her grumpiness, loneliness, boredom, and constant complaints about her health had made her seem older than people in their eighties and nineties.

She showed the whole neighborhood why parents should not believe that it produces traumas to say "No" to children. Miss Ermyntrude's life would have been much happier if her parents had said "No."