Chapter 3 - Growing Up (A Coming Home)
Chapter 3 - Growing Up
John sat quiet as the miles rolled by, and taking advantage of his silence, I thought I would begin to “explain” who my parents were and how we were raised, but even as my words left my mouth, I realized what a daunting task that was going to be. Maybe 1,800 miles wasn’t going to be long enough, I thought laughing to myself.
Even so, I began, “My parents came from very different religious and economic backgrounds. My Dad was raised in a conservative Hispanic community of poor estate. He had a very religious set of parents of Catholic origin, and while poor, their family was rich in love, and honored hard work, integrity and truth. Simple virtues for a simple life, Dad would say. Over the years I observed that although Catholic, they had a familiar relational feel for God; one that was not typical, but with that of a classic reverence for God, hallmark of being catholic.“
“My Mom, on the other hand was Protestant, of the Evangelical-Charismatic persuasion, and raised in a somewhat less affectionate family, or at least not as open in touching and hugging by comparison to my Dad’s family. But, my Mom’s family was clearly in a much better economic state than my Dad’s. They traveled Europe and Asia, and my Mom even had a used (but good condition) convertible mustang. My Dad didn’t have a car throughout high school and when he needed a ride, he would have to bum one. Mom went without anything that she wanted. She rewarded her parents by being a great student, and generally well behaved. But my Mom had one major flaw. She was, and still is, strikingly beautiful. Yes, flaw. Because with beauty came problems. She is the die that casted her replica, Rebecca; replica in many challenging ways. But Mom is also the one to play games with us. Taught us to ride bikes and drive, to help us with school work; but just as easy, to start an argument.”
“They were born in different cultures, different religious practices and on different sides of the “tracks”, as it were. But one thing they did both have in in common was an incredible love for each other. One that was indestructible! Mom’s family tried many avenues to block and sabotage their relationship. That is, until in a big argument with her parents, Mom threw her keys at her Dad and said, “You can take my keys, but you will never take my choice!” From that day on, there was not another word or act, said or taken against Dad, and Mom and Dad were allowed to date from then on.“
Looking to make sure John was listening, I asked how he was raised and whether he had any good memories? John said in a dull and unemotional manner, “Not really... I was a single child from a dysfunctional family of one. My Mom ... Who passed away a couple years ago. .... and never knew my Dad. I’m supposed to have family on the West coast; but don’t know who they are.“
There was a long silence, as I let his words sink into my heart. In an attempt to steer the conversation back onto something that had a possibly more humorous side and throw the attention back on me, I recalled that there was another thing that my parents had in common. It really was a culture of the time in child rearing of the 50’s.
Breaking into the dead silence of the highway noise, I blurted our, “There was another matter that they had in common. One that affected us a children; and that was, family discipline. They were both disciplined as children growing up, and so, we would be disciplined as well; meaning that we were to be spanked for our offenses. My Dad simply said, ‘It works’.”
“But where it did differ, was in the instrument and quantity. My Dad, liked to using his belt. My Mom preferred the paddle which she had it hanging profoundly in the kitchen, to announce to all that the Torres children were subject to paddlings. So embarrassing when my friends came over. They would just smirk and look at me, knowing that my mom paddled me. Having that paddle starkly hanging there stood as a constant reminder of painful consequences for not pleasing our parents, and God directed and Authorized.“
“Both used them unsparingly and with great effect. Believe it or not, Mom’s used to hurt more. Since my Dad was not around a lot, my Mom said, ‘she just had to be good at it.’ No matter what it was we got 10 just for making her have to paddle us. Then any number strikes more depending on the frequency and degree of offense. But always more than Dad. Later, as adults, they told us that the quantity was based on when they heard “real cries.” My Dad said, it wasn’t how loud we cried, but the pitch we screamed in that determined when he would stop. He said, ‘No sense in spanking you unless it would make a difference’”.
”Even though it would hurt like the dickens and we would cry for hours afterwards in our room, we usually knew that we deserved it.“ I told John, “I cannot ever remember it being given in an angry manner. It was just what was going to happen if we violated some pre-established rule. And since it stung so much, we did learn quickly. It didn’t take long before we just knew to obey. And the spankings stopped. Sometimes, we would cry out during the sparking, begging her to stop, saying ‘we won’t do it anymore‘ my Mom wouldn’t even blink an eye, and simply said, ‘I know. And this is going to help you remember’ as she popped us with yet another good hard swat of the paddle, continuing until she heard that sound that she was listening for. And what made her paddlings the worst, was not only the quantity, but that she would always paddle us just in our underwear, so we could feel the full sting of the paddle. My Dad would at least leave us with our dignity and let us keep our pants. Although Sarah and Rebecca usually wore a dress during their spanking.
John just kept quiet, and although he held his tongue, I could tell he had something to say, but after an awkward pause, I continued, “I only tell you of this to explain why all of us kids had a strong appreciation for proper behavior, respect for authority, the practice of a strong work ethic, an accountability for our commitments and a recognition for consequences for our failures and actions. Spankings with explanations were what taught us at a very young age, about the important virtues of life. Lessons that have paid dividends for us all our lives. ... Richard was the only one to escape the ’pleasures’ of spankings, and you could tell. Richards’s attitudes at times carried the arrogant tones of disrespect, inconsideration and laziness. All of which was cured in the older three of us. Even Rebecca to a large degree, even though a handful, the paddle hanging from the kitchen wall was reminder enough.”
“Sorry, John! ... I didn’t mean to digress that much, but I didn’t want to forget this important part of how my parents shaped our lives as children; wink wink ... but seriously, how discipline like this really did affectively work to shape my family, as both demonstrated by us and contrasted by Richard ...in behavior, in the same family.“
“Ok, so let me return to my story of my parents. Finally, my parents did graduate; and back in those days it wasn’t usually too long before young couples wanted to get married. And my Mom and Dad were no different. So, even though the Hargrove’s didn’t like my Dad, there was nothing they could do to stop them then from getting married. The Hargrove‘s eventually came to a great respect for him, after his time in Vietnam, or ‘Nam’ as he would call it.”
“So, while unusual for the day, they got married in the Catholic Church. Even though in realit, my Mom raised us as Christians; trying hard to not make any distinction between our two religions. As to Sunday,” ... pausing to see if John was still awake. John, turned to me as if to say, “What?”, so I continued, “... Sundays, when we did go to church, we would go to Mom’s Church, and when Dad was home, we went to the his Church.”
Trying to get John more engaged I asked him, “Did you ever go to Church?” But quickly answered, “No!” Taking his abrupt answer suggest a subject that he didn’t want to engage, I continued on.
“Growing up we never really knew how to answer the question, ‘What religion were we?’ Mom would just tell us to say, “Tell’m you’re a Christian!” But that really didn’t help, as I told John, ”... And that was another thing, in all honesty ... back then, we didn’t know what being a Christian was either. It just seemed to be a bunch of do’s and don’ts. Mom said that is what Catholics believe, and then throwing out her montra “... They have a works faith;” but I would see the same thing at her Church - just a different set of do’s and don’ts, that’s all.
But we were to get a real life schooling when we became adults. For me and my Dad, we both learned it from war, and I mean really learned it. You really face yourself and God when you have to kill someone. Take their life. Looking into their lifeless eyes, and knowing you took everything in this life away from them. Their family, wife, children, hopes, dreams and pleasures. To watch your friends be killed, as you killed. Having to sometimes be the one to talk to their family ... answering horrible questions. No. Religion is forgotten in those moments. All there is, is the truth. No words can captlure those feelings. And although we had been schoole, we were going to get another lesson in death.
For the first time in over 500 miles, John asked a question, ‘What’s it like... killing someone?’ And for the first time in the entire road trip, I was speechles. I could not answer John; but after an hour of silence, I just said, “You’ll find ou!”
Returning to my story, I went on, “Learning about God and what He expects of us as people, was made more difficult, because my Dad was often MIA on the family front; sometimes for months at a time. But Mom would honor Dad’s wishes when he came home. After all he was “head of the house” as she chuckled. But Mom would say, ‘it wasn’t just that. What our Dad did as a soldier gave him the right to commune with God in the way he needs to commune.‘ My Dad was not a theologian. He was a man of simple and religious faith, and had a deep intimacy with God through prayer. Mom, however, was very schooled in the Bible, and quoted it often, both to instruct and to warn. Her favorite passage was, Proverbs 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.”
I told John, that I never really understood the differences between the two religions either. That is, until I got into the Marines, saying, “Since Dad was MIA a lot, Mom was able to raise us pretty much as Protestants, so we have a healthy bank of memorized Scripture. My Dad was supposedly none the wiser, or so Mom thought. Years later I asked my Dad if knew. All he did was laugh and said, “What do you think son?”
As the miles continued to roll under our wheels, John listened intently, and only then began making grunting sounds, now and then - I think just to let me know he was still listening.
As I continued to recount our lives. I told him, “Religion was just religion to us. We didn’t know or really see how it mattered in our lives. We just thought that our religion was something God wanted from us and for Himself; to be worshipped. To pray to him and hope he will agree with our wishes and that he would care for us and not punish us. That was why we thought we had to go to church.”
“But one day, all that stopped forever! Tragedy knocked on our door with Pain for its gift.”
Still recalling my anger, I told John, “Religion became an empty bowl over night! Death had entered our home, and robbed our family and shook our faith. Everything had changed with the sound of a phone ringing. Why did God take our family’s first child. We were hurt, angry and confused. We suffered as a family with a punch in the gut that buckled our legs, tore our heart and killed our religion. Grief brought to us an immeasurable pain, that stole every good thing from our sight with sorrow.”
My voice wavering, I said, “It was an early October day, no different than any other day, just over three years ago. My sister Sarah had gotten married in 1990, and in early summer of 1992, she had her first child. Named after my her husband, Alex.”
“Alexander was our family’s first born child of the next generation. My Dad was there when my Mom heard the phone ring. It was a Friday, normally, a wonderful day, and she thought it was one of her friends from church. But when Mom picked up the phone, heard someone crying, then realized it was Sarah crying hysterically on the other end, my Dad said Mom’s face suddenly changed. Then Sarah screamed out, “He’s dead! My son is dead, Mom!”
“With that my Mom just dropped on the chair by the phone, and for a solitary moment, sat stunned; and then, as if I could see them both myself, my Dad said that he saw her face that same look we all would have upon hearing this news, and that was shear disbelief and horror. Bursting into tears with her own crying, my Mom tried to collect herself and mumbled out questions trying to understand what had happened.”
“What a horrible day it was.”
And with a blast, “What!” Leaning in toward me, he exerted himself, “What happened?”
Caught up in the memory myself, although it had been over three year, I was choking up on my words and with tears forming in my eyes, I was unable to speak, I held my words back. John seemed to understand, and waited for me to get my emotions under control. It must have been a few miles before I felt that I could complete a sentence.
In a shaky and cracking voice, I said, “The baby died in his crib, Crib Death they called it. ... It was all a mystery of how and why Alexander died. The doctors said, “It just happens!” They really don’t know why or what causes it. The police and coroners report cleared Sarah and Alex of any wrongdoing, and it simply read that the death was of natural causes.”
“Everyone told her that she wasn’t to blame. It wasn’t her fault. But there is something about parenthood that is as inexplicable, as it is inescapable. And that is, for whatever reasons, parents feel they are to blame. They want to blame themselves for their children’s life and lives, their safety, pains and yes, their death. Always self-accusing to the end, as if there was always something they could have done to have prevented it. God made them their stewards, and they failed both God and their child, but even more, themselves!”
It was that event in our family’s life that brought us together. Later Dad would say, it was “The Hand of God come! Come bearing Hammer and Anvil, to reforge us new Family for use beyond itself’. And an answer to my his prayer; an answer he did not know would cost him through his daughter and would cost us our innocense. Such a sacrifice. He would forge us into that special quality of steel that could only be purchased with holy blood. Our thoughts of religion that day came to a grinding halt and our empty faith, to a truthful revelation and welcomed end.”
Finally, I said to John, “The death of Alexander would reshape our thinking and beliefs in God. Our beliefs in life and our purpose in life, and yes, even death. It would clear up all of who we were as a family, as a servant before God and as a model of Christian home before the world. It would, ironically give us a deeper understanding of our relationships and greater commitments for our purpose in life and the urgency of being that visible display of peace with the world, as a testimony of Christ. Yes! All of this because we came face to face with God.
How would John understand our idea of Home and Thanksgiving, if he didn’t first have some foundations and understanding of our beliefs in God and ourselves before Him?, I thought to myself. I concluded he could not, and so we must wrestle with this pig. Better now, than in front of my family, I thought.
“So John! ... Do you believe in God? You know the God of the Bible?”, trying to ask him in a non threatening way. John paused, and fixed his gaze on the road ahead. His eyes betraying a sense of fearful discovery, pausing, he drew a long breath.