Dad’s feet showed the signs of his harsh working environment. The skin was often dry and cracked, and his toes were sharp from being squeezed into shoes too tight for his feet.
No one remembers how Carolyn and I got started with this strange little ritual. But we did it several times in the space of a couple of years, and loved every minute of it.
Even now, we remember every detail of Dad’s feet.
But here’s the thing.
This same father whom we adored with all our hearts could administer whippings that set standards for harshness and hurt and cruelty.
To this day, my heart aches at the memories of those whippings, not just the ones I received but those meted out to my siblings.
My older brothers used to speak of the bad whippings dad’s mother, our precious Grandma Bessie, could administer. She never gave me one, but I’m confident they know whereof they speak. Ron and Glenn always seemed to be getting into trouble of one kind or the other. As the fourth child, bracketed by two sisters, I was the good kid, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit (smiley-face here please).
So, Dad learned to whip children from his mom? That might seem to be the case, although it explains nothing.
What is it, we wonder, about “corporal punishment”? How did it happen that these wonderful people thought they were doing well by treating their children so cruelly? Was it a sign of their stress, their frustration, an indication they were feeling overwhelmed by life?
I have no idea. The very concept is so foreign to our way of thinking today.
How does a loving parent pull out a mining belt four inches wide and a half-inch thick and beat a child until large red welts appear on their back and legs? How does a wonderful father beat a child until his daughters’ legs are so bloody they have to wear jeans to school?
I am at a loss.
But something happened to my dad. And that’s the reason for this little piece. (I’ve not asked my siblings about writing it. If they are uncomfortable with it, I’ll take it down. Our dad died in 2007, and left a major hole in our hearts. He loved us dearly as we did him.)
Over the years Dad became gentle and precious and, in a hundred ways, the essence of kindness.
We never asked him about those whippings. Better to leave those bad memories alone. We did say sometimes, however, in a somewhat light-hearted way, that these days he could be arrested for the punishment he gave his children. I do not recall his reactions, and doubt if he said anything in response.
Did we need an apology? No. I’m confident we did not. God changed him into a loving and gracious man whom we were able to enjoy for over four decades after his retirement.
What changed my dad, I’m certain, was love.
The love of his wife, our wonderful mama, and the love of his children.
Gradually Dad learned that in spite of those glaring character defects of his, our love was going to be consistent. Nothing he could do would stop our love.
(As we say, Dad was a puzzle, an enigma. He worked hard in the coal mines to provide for us, sometimes even doubling back and putting in a second straight eight-hour shift inside the deep West Virginia mines. So, no single description of Dad as all good or all bad works. He was a mixture. Like the rest of us, I expect.)
We loved the dad who did these things to us.
And eventually love won.
Exactly how and when that happened, I cannot pinpoint. But perhaps this was the turning point …