As a child, I hated the taste of paregoric, the smell of Little Toni perms, and the sharp pain of penicillin shots. But more than any of these, I hated four words — no, not “turn off the TV” or “go brush your teeth” or the dreaded “it’s time for bed.” The words that sounded to my ears like the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard were: “Because … I … said so.”
I was not an easy child. I heard those four words often.
They were spoken to me one spring afternoon when I was maybe four or five. In Ma-ma’s front yard I was building a “fairy church” on the gnarled gray roots of a shady oak tree. Construction was proceeding nicely. I’d made the pulpit and pews with mudpies, used moss for carpet, and was arranging yellow bell and mock orange petals into a stained glass window above the choir loft.
The afternoon sun tingled warm on my shoulders, the velvety moss tickled my legs, the sand twisted cool between my toes—and my mind was filled with possibilities. This church was so pretty, I decided, that maybe the Fairy Queen herself would come to hear me preach a bird funeral there. Oh, it was a splendid imagining until my mother called to me from the porch.
“Susan, put on your shoes!”
Those were the five words I hated most to hear. Going barefoot was among my young life’s greatest pleasures, right up there with eating molasses biscuits, blowing bubbles from a spool, and riding in Pa-pa’s wheelbarrow.
I stood up and wiped the mud from my hands across the front of my “bubble suit,” which my mother had made for me from a chicken feed sack. (Perhaps, you, too remember the feed sack of blue cloth with red sailboats and yellow suns?)
Knowing full well the penalty for “back talk” ranged from a slap to a switching, I called back to her with my hands on my hips and a pout on my lips: “Why?”
She crossed her arms and notched her voice an octave higher. “You know you can’t go barefoot until after Easter!”
“Why?” I pleaded.
“Because … I … said so,” she said, unfolding her arms and extending her index finger in my direction.
I was a bad child, but not a stupid one. When I saw that mother-finger twitch, I knew it was itching for a switch. I put on my shoes.
OK, so you can’t go barefoot until after Easter. That was the least of the many lessons I learned as a child.
I learned not to: play in the street, write in library books, make a “C” in deportment, disobey a teacher, say ugly words, stay out after dark, invite myself for supper at a neighbor’s house, pick flowers from other people’s yards, scratch where it itches in public, pick at scabs, play in a dress on the monkey bars, ride on the hood of a car (don’t ask), make fun of anybody for any reason, talk with my mouth full, spit or bite, hit or kick, pout or whine. (This is only a partial list, you understand.)
Over the next few years I also learned to: eat squash, bathe every day, remember “please” and “thank you,” say “ma’m” and “sir” to grown-ups and “I enjoyed it” to the cook, do my homework, go to Sunday School, sit still in church, let company have their way, pray before I lay me down to sleep, clean up my messes, wear a petticoat even if nobody can see through my dress, speak to adults only when spoken to, put on clean underwear in case I get hit by a car and end up at the hospital. (This is only a partial list, you understand.)
Why? You ask, “Why?” What logical purpose did these behaviors serve? What was the reason I should do — or should not do — all these things?
You guessed it: “Because I said so.”
I promised myself when I had children of my own, I would teach them these same important life lessons — except for that barefoot before Easter rule I still don’t get — but I would offer them thoughtful explanations and logical reasons and an appropriate discussion of possible consequences.
Walter Munson was only three when I put him down for a nap after lunch and settled in the rocking chair with Janie. She had just drifted off to sleep when the telephone rang.
“Do you know where Walter is?” the kind voice of neighbor Jim Lander asked.
“Yes, sir. He’s upstairs taking a nap,” I answered.
“No, he’s not. He’s playing on the roof of your front porch.
I can’t remember if I thanked him for the call. Just in case: thank you, General.
I raced upstairs, set Janie in her crib — she cried, of course — and I ran to the window in Walter Munson’s room that opened to the roof. There he was, my baby, squatting at the edge of the roof, giggling as he tossed Fisher Price Little People into the grass below.
“Whee!” he laughed.
I swallowed hard, not wanting to frighten him for fear he would lose his footing. Very gently, I said, “Walter, come to Mommy. Right now.”
He turned his sweet face to me and frowned. “Why?”
“Walter, plastic people don’t cry when they fall. But if you fall, you’ll get hurt. Come to Mommy. Right now.”
“Why?” he pouted.
I took a deep breath, held it in, let it go — and on that breath were those four words I swore I would never say, “Because … I … said so. Come here. Now.”
And the boy came inside from the roof to live another day and to hear those four words again and again and again.
I admit: not all the good lessons of my childhood “took.” I still find myself being less than the person my mother and my grandmother raised me to be. Not all the good lessons I offered to my children “took,” either. But I comfort myself with this thought: at least we know what we’re supposed to do, even when we don’t, and we know what we’re not supposed to do, even when we do. We had mothers and grandmothers who taught us how to behave, even before we were reasonable enough to understand all the reasons.
Mothers — God bless ‘em for all their struggles and all their frustrations, all their strength and all their love, all their worries and all their work. This Sunday, you know, is Mother’s Day. If you are fortunate enough to have a momma who is still among the living, you thank her for all she did for you, and you tell her you’re sorry about all that “back talk.” OK?
Why? You ask, “Why?” Because I said so.
If your moma is not among the living? You drop to your knees and thank heaven above for the good momma God gave you.
For the self-same reason — because I said so.
Happy Mother’s Day, all!