Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships
Parents Prioritizing Status And Material Things Above Children’s Happiness
My childhood was surrounded, suffocated by treasures of such worth as to require shielding in glass cases, kept on view, but never to be touched, much like my parents. Actually, that is not quite fair. My mom and dad did give us hugs and cuddles. Still, these were tentative, as if, like their antiques, we might be fragile, breakable even, held close for too long.
Our front- room comprised a large display of clocks, lamps, statuettes and tapestries. The core of their collection was a vase created during the Ming Dynasty, “beyond price”, as our dad was prone to say. This vase stood naked, on its own small table, under a chandelier which, by its glow, showed every intricate detail.
Of far less value was a box which housed implements of early dentistry, intended, I believe, to make my brother Greg and me grateful for the gentler dental methods of our day. It failed to do so. In fact, Mum’s chosen dentist, Dr. Drake, was such a brute that I began to shake before even the briefest check-up.
On one drive home, I pleaded with my parents, “Don’t make me go there anymore.” There was a pause. Dad kept on driving, gazing straight ahead.
“Why ever not?” Mum asked, smoothing her lipstick, its henna hue reminding me of blood.
“Drake rams that needle deep into my gum-he always makes me bleed-, then straight-away says, “Ready, right?” then straight-away starts drilling.”
Dad glanced up from the road, and then said, “That can’t be right, especially in light of what we pay him. We ought to find a dentist nearer home, as it would save a lot of time and petrol.”
Mum glared, and then said, “I chose Dr. Drake because he is descended from the great Sir Francis Drake, knighted by Queen Elizabeth the First.”
I asked, “Does that mean this Drake is the best dentist?”
“Cara, Stop trying to sound clever.” Mum replied. “You shall go wherever Dad and I decide to take you.” With that, she clapped her handbag shut with such a click as to make clear. That ends the matter.
Old Enough to be Left Home Alone
I was eleven and Greg eight when Mum and Dad decided they could trust us to stay home by ourselves, while they went out to dinner, as it was their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Just before leaving, Dad said, “Both of you know the rules.” Greg and I nodded. Dad opened the front door and, headed towards the car.
Mom stayed behind, just long enough to say, “You've had your dinner, and if you feel hungry, I've left some nuts and pretzels for you on the buffet. We should be home around eleven, or before midnight, at any rate. Go to sleep whenever you like; Dad and I will let ourselves back in.”
Two Children by Themselves
For the first hour, after they had gone, Greg and I went upstairs and larked about, glad of our freedom. Then Greg said, “I'm getting hungry. Let's go downstairs and eat.”
“Right,” I said, rushing ahead of him. Passing the front-room, racing towards the kitchen, we ate those snacks on the side-board.
Afterwards, Greg said, “Now my mouth feels hot and salty.”
"So does mine,” let's see what we can find inside the fridge. Then, searching through its shelves, I exclaimed “We've got no milk, soda or lemonade.”
“We'll have to have tap water then?” he asked.
Then, just before I closed the fridge door, I said, “Hang on; there's sherry here-a small bottle. I don't know what it tastes like; still, it’s cold. A couple sips apiece can’t do us harm.”
“O.K., let's try some.” He sounded eager to flout what must be too deep a taboo for either Mom or Dad even to mention.
A Taste of Tabooed Nectar
Having untwisted the top off the bottle, I handed it to Greg, then placed its neck between my lips, then let its liquid flow into my throat. “What do you think?” Greg asked.
“It’s bitter, sour, and it’s made me cough. Shall I put it back?”
“I’d like to try it first.”
“Go ahead then.” I said, handing him the bottle.
He took a sip, winced, then half-choking said, “It tastes like pickle juice; it hurt my tongue.”
“I’ll put it back-then-maybe not quite yet. Before I do, I’ll have a few more sips, so I can understand why grownups like it so much they drink a lot at parties even when it makes them silly.” After a few sips, I said, “Hey, not so bad. I’m starting to like how I feel inside, all bright and friendly.”
“Give me a little more then,” Greg said reaching his hands out. Then, having gulped some, he said, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s nice-a bit like Christmas morning just before I open presents.” Soon, the bottle stood on the table, somewhere between us, emptied.
“I can’t believe we drank it all,” I said, tossing it into the bin and trying to cover it beneath other refuse-I could not, wholly.
Hide And Seek in The Front Room
“What should we do now?” my brother asked. “It’s gone nine-o’clock; Mum said they might not be back until after eleven.”
”We could play hide-and-seek.”
“OK, but where? There's not much space in here or upstairs either.”
“There is the front-room. We're not allowed in there-not by ourselves.”
“So we'll be extra careful, won't we?”
Once in that sanctum, both of us moved with care for some while. Then, hiding behind a tapestry, discovered by my brother, I jumped out. Then, with a sense of horror, felt my right elbow striking something hard. We heard a crash, a smash, and then splintering.
Even before we dared to look, we knew; the vase lay shattered. We left its pieces where they fell; it seemed a sacrilege even to touch them. Let Mom and Dad see every shard of what they had so cherished.
The Consequences of Parental Wrath
When they came home and viewed the pieces, we knew any excuse or explanation could only serve to vulcanize their fury. Dad, overwrought, rushed straight upstairs. Mum stayed downstairs and ordered us to sit on the bare floor, beside the ruin.
She perched upon the very edge of a large chair, reiterating, “How, just tell me how, the two of you could have done this to us?” Greg and I, too over-awed to cry, could voice no answer. After a while, she pointed towards the stairs, dismissing us, but staying there herself, much like a statue.
Our Quest to Compensate
Greg and I talked throughout that night, struggling to decide what we might do by way of recompense. We hoped that if we pooled our pocket money, and our savings gained from chores or errands done for neighbours, we might just find enough to buy a vase to give as penance.
Next day, just before sunrise, before breakfast, we set off to search through every local shop until we found what we convinced ourselves might be a replica. We had it gift-wrapped in gold-coloured paper, with something like a silver crest fixed to the bow.
Reception of Attempted Recompense
We arrived back home, engulfed as expected, in silence worse than any words could be. Still, we asked mum and dad to sit down in the kitchen. Then, we presented them with what we’d bought. Dad reached out, took it from Greg, unwrapped and glanced at it, then passed it to our Mum. Snatching it from his hand, she glanced down once, held it a moment under the lamplight, then hurled it to the floor; we heard its breaking.
“You should not have done that,” Dad told her.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because you know both kids did all they could.”
She sat still a moment, and then said, “They broke our Ming vase.”
“Still, we know they're sorry. They're kids, not demigods.”
”Yes,” Mom sighed, “That’s true. I wish I had not done what I just did.”
And we believed she was; still, it had happened, and would always stay interwoven.
Things did not change a great deal after that. Our lives continued, as lives often do, within their framework. Still, there were moments when I sensed, if not a softening, at least some effort made to understand when we made errors, or caused disappointment..
Now, as an adult, with my own household, I resist an urge to hoard or accumulate objects of whatever kind. Thus, when I find an item I no longer use, I offer it, give it to someone somewhere. Hence, if what I discard winds up being used to provide warmth or light for someone homeless, I am glad in that all things have value.
© 2014 Colleen Swan