Punishment by weeding, a tale of fatherhood

By David McGlynn

When it came to my boys, I lacked the paternal instinct for meting out pain. The boys’ swearing often made me laugh, and it never seemed fair to chuckle at a perfectly landed “Bite me, asshole,” then punish the speaker for saying it. I had a temper that occasionally culminated in thunderclaps of yelling, but the boys had figured out that my bark was much worse than my bite. I’d spanked them a few times, but I hated myself every time I did it, so mostly I yelled until my face turned blue and I ended up hurting myself. I’d stub my toe on the doorjamb, or gesticulate so wildly my hand would knock against the kitchen cupboards, or do any number of stupid things that would make Katherine laugh at my suffering.

To complicate matters, Hayden was a nihilist when it came to facing the music. Having spent much of his life barricaded inside his room at night thanks to the trusty shower curtain rod, the prospect of a time-out struck no fear in his heart. If we quarantined his books and toys, he’d scribble on his walls with a crayon hidden like a shank beneath his mattress. I’d considered strapping him to a chair in nothing but a ribbed tank top and his skivvies—which I was fully prepared to do now if he didn’t cop to the theft. The look on my face, and the open wallet in my hand, was enough to convince him to tell the truth. “Am I grounded?” he asked when he came down the stairs.

“Grounded isn’t the right word for what’s coming,” I said.

“What are you going to do to me?” For the first time, he looked actually scared. I considered it a small victory. I tried to think of the worst job I could subject him to that wouldn’t prompt the neighbors to call Child Protective Services.

“Get ready to pull some weeds,” I said.

Pulling weeds was my father’s preferred mode of punishment. If ever I sassed or grew too hyper or slapped my sister, I’d be turned out to the yard with a plastic trash bag and orders to clear the beds along the driveway. Pulling weeds is a fundamentally different activity from gardening. Gardening aims toward sculpting and beautification and can involve the satisfying hum of power equipment or the crisp snip of pruning shears. Pulling weeds is chain gang work, trash picking by another name, Man vs. Nature in the most elemental, back-breaking sense. And in Houston, the weeds, like the cockroaches and pickups and hairdos, were just massive. They’d evolved to grow especially thick in order to withstand the triple-digit heat and sauna-like humidity. Pulling a Texas dandelion out of the ground was like extracting a molar from an elephant’s mouth.

I’d tried to make the boys do various jobs over the years, all with disastrous results. After patiently teaching Galen how to use the lawnmower, he’d cut a path through the lawn that looked amazingly similar to the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Crop Circles” box set. After months of empty threats to make Hayden scrub the toilets, I decided to make good and sent him into the john with the caddy of cleansers. He emptied half the can of Ajax into the toilet bowl before pouring the rest onto the living room rug and spraying it with Windex. It formed a tenacious paste that required a putty knife to remove. Pulling weeds, I believed, would prove a simpler, purer task. Just a boy with a trash bag and his thoughts for company.

Early Saturday morning I walked Hayden to the garden beneath the pines at the back of the yard, a stretch of dirt spanning the entire width of the property and long dominated by dandelions and buck-wheat. We’d tried once to grow vegetables there but soon realized the grocery store had far better vegetables, grown by farmers who actually knew what they were doing. Galen wanted to grow pumpkins one year, so we tried that, too, and ended up with massive, snarling vines that formed a barbed-wire barricade around the weeds. My last bright idea had been to layer the beds with newspaper to kill everything beneath it, but that only gave the squirrels something to read while they burrowed through it. Bits of shredded newspaper still blew against the house every time the wind picked up.

I handed Hayden his trash bag and the hand spade, the one Katherine used for potting flowers. “Here you go, my friend,” I said. “How many do I have to dig up?” His eyes grew wide as he surveyed the knee-high jungle engulfing his feet.
 “Get digging,” I said. “I’ll let you know when you’re done.”
I watched him through the back window, the sun on his scalp, his shovel working the soil. Every few seconds Hayden sat back on his knees and squinted at the house—for me or Mom or anyone to rescue him from this purgatory. As punishments went, it seemed to be working, though after an hour of work he’d cleared a section about the size of a dinner plate. “What are you thinking about?” I asked when I went out to check on him.

“I’m thinking I sure have learned my lesson,” he said. “Can I be done now?”

It was early May and as fine a day as we’d had all year. I could hear the mourning doves and titmice in the branches. It had been two years since our failed bid to sell our house, two years since we’d decided to remain on this little patch of earth, in our small city in northeast Wisconsin, in our jobs and neighborhood, in communion with our small but delightful circle of friends. We’d kept the possibility of leaving in our back pockets, a last-ditch ejection-seat option in case life here turned out to suck, and we’d come close a few times to pushing the button. But we hadn’t, we’d stayed, and for better or worse, the house and the land it sat on were home.

Standing among the weeds with Hayden I recalled how I’d stood in more or less this same spot looking back at the house on the day we decided to buy it. We were fairly certain Hayden was conceived the night our offer was accepted, which meant that Hayden’s entire existence was congruent with our possession of the place. I remembered parking the car in the garage on the day we brought him home from the hospital, Katherine and I still shaky with fear after his touch-and-go time in the NICU. He’d learned to walk here, and talk, and in his tiny bedroom beneath the eaves of the roof he’d undoubtedly stared up at the ceiling as the morning light squeezed through the blinds and understood that he was himself, separate from other people, I and therefore not you.

Our house was the only one he’d ever known, and the odds were decent that he’d live nowhere else until he lived on his own. That fact alone gave me reason enough to invest in it. The houses we grow up in have ways of not only containing our childhoods but defining them: They’re the stages of our earliest, most primal memories, and from them we each derive our idiosyncratic conceptions of home. What had felt to me like an arbitrary decision eight and a half years ago (we had only a few days to look for a place to live and our budget was tight) would end up playing an outsized role in how the boys thought about themselves, the places they saw in their minds when they considered where they were from. Hayden’s DNA was knit with this ratty patch of weeds. I owed it to his future to transform it into something worth remembering.

But when I pushed the spade into the soil, I realized why Hayden had been working so slowly. Last winter’s snow had left a crusted scrim over the top layer of dirt. The second and third layers were bone dry from the pine trees along the perimeter. Even with a good shove, the blade barely sank an inch. The earth was as hard as concrete. “See?” Hayden said. “It’s impossible.”

“Nothing’s impossible,” I said. “We just need a bigger shovel.”

David McGlynn is the author of One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons from an Unexpected Fatherhood, just released by Counterpoint Press. He teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

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