The worst punishment I ever got from mama was getting my mouth washed out with soap. It happened after two kids stopped roaming the neighborhood to scurry up the bulbous vine and squat on the arbor. At my house, arbor squatting was as verboten as standing on the lid over the well. But they didn’t fall through, but just sat up there and looked around. After a while Elmer, who was 5, discovered a white substance on one of the leaves.
“Looka here, Elton, “ he grinned to his older brother. “There’s bird s—- on this leaf.”
Elton looked at his brother’s find. “That’s bird s—-, all right,” he said. Then they laughed and laughed.
That was new vocabulary for me, but I knew what they were talking about. A boy at school used a word for this hilarious substance when he wished a big one would fly out of one of our female classmates. Then they laughed and laughed. After school I told Mama what I had heard.
“That’s a bad word, Leon,” she said. “It’s vulgar, and I don’t want you to say it.”
From that I knew for sure the boys on the grapevine were talking ugly. I ran to the back door, and opened the screen.
“Mama,” I said, “Elmer and Elton are sitting on the grapevine.”
“They might fall and get hurt,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. “I need to tell them to come down.”
“That’s not all, mama,” I said. “They said they saw bird s—- on a leaf.”
“That’s a dirty word, Leon,” she frowned. “Don’t let me hear you say it again.”
She turned to go out and have a word with the squatters.
“Mama, Elmer and Elton are just old s—— themselves.” I said using the plural.
The screech I heard was mama’s shoe soles skidding on the linoleum.
“What did you say? “
“They are, mama,” I said. “They ‘resitting on our grapevine and saying bad words. Elton and Elmer are just old s—- themselves.”
She brought me a chair.
“You sit down right here,” she said.
“Aren’t you gon’ talk to Elmer and Elton?” I asked, as she pulled down a bar of Ivory soap from the kitchen cabinet, and tore off the paper.
Then she went to the water bucket, and poured a wash pan full pan of water, where she soaked the rag good, and then smeared it full of soap.
“What are you going to do with that soap, mama?”
“I’m going to wash your mouth out with it.”
“Please don’t mama,” I said, just before I clamped my lips together.
“Open your mouth.”
“Please don’t, mama. I won’t say it again,” I groaned through clenched teeth.
“You knew it was dirty word,” she said. “But you said it anyway. You have something dirty in your mouth. I’m going to wash it out with this soap.”
I obeyed. She scrubbed my teeth and she scrubbed my gums, she scrubbed my lips and she scrubbed my tongue.
“Please stop, mama,” I glubbed. “I won’t say it anymore. “
She pulled the soapy rag back long enough for me to wipe the foam off my mouth, then started again.
“I intend to raise you up a good and Godly man,” she said, as she kept scrubbing.
I tried to get my mind off what was happening to me, by concentrating on the taste.
Ivory soap claimed to be 99 44/100 percent pure, but it still tasted like hominy corn mixed with Royal Crown hair dressing. By the time she was done, I had forgotten all about Elton and Elmer, who were not there when she let me go and I stumbled outside, to spit soap for another half hour. But she wasn’t mad at me, for the next time she made chocolate fudge, she let me lick the spoon.
When his words were not enough to secure a change in my behavior, daddy disciplined me with a switch off the shrub bush, or the strap of his leather belt. But stinging legs were not in order for what I did over at Aunt Hazel’s.
Mama was very grateful to her Aunt Hazel for giving her a roof over her head, and paid her back by dragging our family to her house every Sunday afternoon, where my sisters and I counted the ticks of the mantel clock and the catarrh strums of dozing adults, struggling to exist while making neither sound nor motion.
“If you’ll be quiet, I’ll pay you,” Aunt Hazel said to me more than once.
She never kept her promise, so I learned to escape to get a drink of water from the bucket on the porch, and as soon as I put the dipper down, I slipped off behind the ancient farm house. It must have been so quiet with me gone that they forgot about me.
Whereas Aunt Hazel was bony and mean, her fice dog, Major, was fat and gentle. Unlike her, he must have enjoyed my company, because he went with me to look for doodle bugs under the house, and to rub the sandstone pillars, so old they had worn skinny as an hourglass in the middle. He would watch me tight-rope across the pipe between the dug well and the watering trough.
One day, while Major had gone off somewhere, I decided to see what was behind the smokehouse, but the only thing I found was a fig tree, with little green figs. When Old Major waddled up behind me, some unseen force drew my glance to a stick lying on the ground, then directed my attention to Major, then back at the stick; after that my own imagination took over. Major made a big target, so even though he was my friend, I made plans to target him, looking around to see if anyone could see me, then checking the distance between us and the house. With no one to see me, and the grownups being too far away to hear him yelp, I decided I could hit Major with that stick— and get away with it. No one would ever know.
So I picked up the stick and threw it at him. It hit him on the back, but he didn’t even act like he felt it, so I picked it up again to make it really hurt. Just as I drew back, I felt someone watching me, and looked around to see it was daddy.
He came up, and put his arm around me, but waited a few moments before he said a word.
“Major’ll never forget that, son,” he whispered.
Daddy stayed there with me, ‘til I dropped the stick, then he walked over and stooped down to rub Major.
I didn’t want look at Major. I wished he would just go back under the house, but he just stood there wagging his tail, and looking sad.
Then he came over to me, and looked up. When I looked in his eyes, I cried and cried.
“Major, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
He looked at me and hassled.
“He’s laughing,” daddy said. “You can pet him now. ”
I stooped down to pat Major on his head, then he turned so I would scratch his old fat ears. After a while daddy patted both of us, then we all walked back toward the house.
Mama, daddy and Major are long gone. I don’t know if they forgot what I did wrong, but I never did. And even when I continued to do wrong, I was never blind to the fact that I had fallen below their standard.
I’m so grateful to them for bringing me to penitence, for if they had not loved me, and if they had not punished me —both these essential things — I may have well been writing this from the penitentiary.