Before I became a parent, I had a long list of things I was never going to do. When you don’t have children, you can see so clearly the incredibly stupid mistakes that other parents are making. Don’t you find that’s true?
So I had a long list of stupid parenting decisions I was never going to make. Things I was never going to do.
Things I have, for the most part, done. Sigh. Turns out being a parent is harder than it appears.
But . . . I have never ever allowed my children to eat things before I have paid for them. You know those kids you see in the grocery stores eating boxes of cookies or fruit snacks as mom shops? So icky.
Eating without paying for it is stealing. A lesson I learned from my dad.
During the early years of my childhood in Illinois, my Dad worked at a variety of short-lived jobs that always seemed to come to dramatic and emotion-filled ends. Being so much more intelligent than regular people made it difficult for him to deal with authority. Or so he explained it to us as we ate another meal of mayonnaise and bread. He talked a lot about other people not being able to see the “big picture,” but I remember thinking that if the little picture came with lunch meat, it was big enough for me.
My dad did all sorts of things for short periods of time. He worked in kitchens, as a mover, as a painter, as a taxi driver (Did he? I have a memory of him driving a taxi, but maybe that’s not right), and he was always in the middle of some grand scheme that was going to solve all of our problems.
I remember especially the balloons. Huge, round, brightly-colored, air-filled balloons that he tied to long sticks. When you think balloons, don’t you think jolly? I’m not sure I can fully express to you how not jolly my dad was. I was only 6, but I sensed problems.
Success as a balloon man required a willingness to ingratiate oneself not only to the children who wanted a balloon, but to the parents making the purchasing decisions. I remember listening in horror as he called several children “assholes” when they came back with sad popped balloons and asked for replacements. Their parents would be standing in the background smiling as my dad replaced the balloons. He would wave at the family as the confused child ran away from the crazy balloon man, and then stare angrily after them, “Fucking assholes.”
Of course I went home and told my mom. And there was a huge fight. And then my slightly younger brother got the job of playing “happy child of crazy balloon man,” because, as my dad hissed in my ear, “You are just like your fucking mother.”
I was really surprised when the balloon gig seemed to be going really well. My dad started coming home with small amounts of change (the balloons were fifty cents each, which meant a lot of sweaty kid-palmed quarters) and food. Cans of fruits and vegetables, big slabs of plastic-wrapped meat, loaves of bread.
It was like a miracle.
And then came the day that my younger brother got sick, and I was once again drafted as sidekick. My dad and I spent the day outside of a grocery store selling balloons to passers-by. At the end of a very long day, we had sold perhaps 15 balloons. I couldn’t believe that my brother was so much better at this than I was, and I felt really bad.
We stood outside the grocery store until closing time, and then my dad started packing stuff up. As the grocery store manager came out to lock the front doors of the store, my dad asked if I could use the bathroom. It was clear from the reaction of the store manager that this request had been made before, and he held the door open for me. My dad escorted me to the very back of the darkened store, back to the storeroom, where the bathroom was located. While I went to the bathroom, he waited outside the door.
It was still dark in the store as we left, but my dad looked funny. We hurried past the impatient manager, who turned and locked the door, paying us no attention as we climbed in our van and drove away. As we drove, my dad began to pull items from his clothing . . . slabs of plastic-wrapped meat, a loaf of bread, cans of peaches, a bag of cookies, and a large bottle of beer. I started to cry, and he threw a handful of cookies at me.
“Not a word, you hear? You are never going to get anywhere in this life if you can’t learn to keep your fucking mouth shut.”
I wiped my eyes. I didn’t say anything.
There was no point.
And I did like cookies.
Still do. But no one is allowed to break the seal on that box of cookies until I’ve paid for them.
It’s called parenting.