The Relative Value of Guilt
December of nineteen-seventy-five was unseasonably warm, and Christmas Day was no exception. I was nine years old. I recall raising the blinds in my Grandparent’s den, expecting the wish I had made the previous night to reward me with a yard full of snow, but alas, the jolly round man had let me down (thanks, Santa!): it was sunny and not a frosty flake in sight.
A good portion of the family was there for the holidays, but I won’t bore you with the roll-call – the key players in this drama were me, my sister, and my Grandparents, who happened to be gone that morning, tending to some business at their restaurant, the Ponderosa.
Our habit, in those days, was to open presents on Christmas Eve: so we were flush with goodies from the night before. Various wing-dings and numerous what-nots littered the carpet beneath the now lightless tree.
Cousins we only saw occasionally were our best friends provided we had something that caught their eye. But I only cared about one thing in my pile that morning: a leather-bound pad of multi-colored paper – a gift from my Grandmother, who was attempting to nurture an artistic streak that had recently surfaced in me.
It was a fine pad: I recall the colors lime-green, a blue that I can’t name, and three others that completed the rainbow. As you pulled one sheet off the top, a new color emerged – it was magical – and to my nine-year-old brain, the best gift I had ever received. It even came with a pen, and nine-year-old’s using pens was frowned upon in those days.
In hindsight (which is often the case), I realize that my sister was simply jealous of this most spectacular of gifts, and even though she had received her fair share of the Christmas loot, she coveted that thing that seemed to indicate (if only in her mind) that my Grandmother loved me more, which is ridiculous of course; but she was twelve and not that much smarter than me – at least I didn’t think so.
Both of my Grandparents (like most people in the seventies) smoked cigarettes, so sources of ignition were commonplace and easily procured. Somehow, my sister convinced me to come to the ally with her and then wove a seductive tale of fire that mesmerized my young brain to the point where I agreed to let her burn a piece of my precious paper.
The flame was enticing, and we lit a few more. That’s when I noticed the grass in the ally was smoking, and also the moment when my Grandmother stepped through the back-yard gate with a water hose in her hand.
Now, I used the word relative in the title of this story, because you may recall that we used to give children spankings way back when, and believe me, I fully anticipated one. But there’s another thing you may or may not remember: I’m referring to the dreaded “talking to…”.
You would get in trouble, and your mother would say something along the lines of “You just wait until your father gets home… you’re going to get a good talking to.” That’s the one we hated.
I can’t remember a single spanking, the reason for it, or if it changed my mind about anything, but I remember every talking to, and my Grandfather was the best (or worst, depending on your perspective).
By the time he had explained how we could have burned down everything they owned, everything they had worked their entire lives for, endangered our whole family and put the entire neighborhood at risk, I never wanted to see another match again – ever.
So, yes, guilt has its place, and it works far better than violence. The only question that remains is, did he put the guilt on me… or did I put it on myself, when I realized he was right?