My Aunt Linda was furious. “You do not talk to your grandmother in that way,” she said, shaking her finger at me. “You go and apologize to her now young man.”
I crossed my arms, stuck out my bottom lip and shook my head. “Can’t make me and you ain’t my mama,” I said, stomping my right foot on the hardwood floor.
My aunt pushed open the screened front door and pointed across the road at the large hickory tree in the Finley’s front yard. “Go over and get me one now,” she said.
I’d never been “switch’d” before, but I knew what the term meant and I knew exactly what Aunt Linda wanted.
The hickory tree’s limbs, replete with long wisps of drooping, wire-like fingers, hung low, just within my reach. My aunt’s endeavor was for me to go to that tree, snap off one thin branch and bring it back to her, whereupon it would be used---as a "reward" for my rude behavior. Instead, I defiantly tore off and drug---straight through Mrs. Finley’s bountiful flower garden---a large hickory limb, complete with its myriad of splayed, pencil-thick branches and dropped it at the threshold of my grandmother’s front door.
My aunt reappeared in the screen door and gasped at the sight of a “tree” sprawled at my feet. She looked up and spotted the flattened flowers across the street. She stepped out, eyeballed the massive limb and once satisfied with her choice of correction, snapped off a single, skinny branch that appeared to me to be the equal of a matador’s whip. She quickly flailed it back and fork. “This will do right well for your switch’n” she said. Frightened by her tone, I turned to run, to escape … to flee for my life.
She grabbed me above the left elbow and jerked me up before I could raise my first step to freedom. I tried to pull away but she tugged me toward the front yard. I kicked and screamed at her, “You better let me go! I’m gonna tell my mama and you’ll be---!"
She raised the switch overhead---“HISS-SNAP!”---I felt the bite and sting on my left leg just above the knee as the hickory hit its mark. “You do that boy …you tell your mama … and here’s another one for sassing me!”
“HISS-SNAP!” The second snap didn’t sting---it burned. I put my hands behind me and reached down to shield my legs. I tried to escape again, but could only manage a rapid, high-stepping trot, dragging my aunt in dizzying circles as she held me tight and whipped the flexible, wooden switch into a frenzied blur. “Be still boy. You’re not getting away !”
“HISS-HISS-HISS-SNAP!” I felt the third strike rip across my ankle. I yelped feeling the sting and burn as one searing pain. Aunt Linda connected twice more across my calves before the switch finally broke, giving up its life to spare mine.
And then it was over.
Aunt Linda released me---holding no more than a twig in her hand. My legs burned as if blistered from the sun and bore a crisscross of swollen, crimson stripes starting at my ankles and ending just above my knees. I swore to myself to never, ever again---wear shorts around Aunt Linda. She had swiped at me no less than fifty times, but had managed to hit her target, yours truly, with only five accuracies. Her poor aim had more to do with her blurred vision than my skill at dodging her thrashing---she wore glasses with lenses thick enough to sight some distant, faraway galaxy.
My aunt pointed at the front porch, “Now … you go and apologize to Granny Mae.”
“Sorry Granny Mae,” I said. My grandmother said nothing. I could tell my words had indeed hurt her feelings; there were tears in her eyes and they surely were not out of pity for my pain. I turned away, ashamed and embarrassed. I ran to the front of the house, sat and cried while waiting for my mother. Mr. and Mrs. Finley stood silently under their hickory tree and watched my despair with no palpable signs of sympathy or intervention for me.
My mother returned from the grocery store and looked down at me as she walked by. I was certain she would notice the tears in my eyes and the welts on my legs. She would surely make Aunt Linda pay dearly. She continued to walk past without speaking a word. I was heartbroken. Aunt Linda spoke quietly with my mother. My mother nodded repeatedly. She turned to my grandmother, “I’m so sorry mama.” My mother looked across to the Finley’s front yard. She called out my name as my aunt and grandmother went inside.
“Thomas, come up here,” she said. I ran to my mother, eager for vindication. I wanted to tell my side of things so she would chew my aunt’s ear ragged for hurting one of her own.
“Did you call your grandmother … lazy?” My mother’s eyes narrowed. “Thomas?”
I looked down avoiding my mother’s piercing stare. “Yes ma’am,” I croaked.
“Look up at me Thomas,” she said. “You should consider yourself lucky young man.”
“But … but … mama, how could get’n switch’d by Aunt Linda make me lucky?”
My mother raised an eyebrow. “Because it could’ve been your grandmother switch’n you son---and she doesn’t miss. Believe me, I know … and so does your Aunt Linda.”
And with that last comment, my mother sat her groceries aside and took me across the street to personally confess my sin and apologize.
Mrs. Finley greeted us at the door. “I’ve been expecting you young man,” she said. Mr. Finley smiled at us and turned his attention back to reading a newspaper from his recliner. Mrs. Finley stared down at me through glasses perched precariously on the end of her nose. “How old are you son?”
“Eight-years old ma’am … and I’ll be in the third grade after this summer,” I answered.
“Old enough to know better for sure,” Mrs. Finley said. She looked at my mother. “You gonna keep that hickory limb around …you know … maybe … for future use?”
My mother smiled and said, “Yes ma’am. I think we’ll call it
insurance … for future use.”
Mr. Finley looked over at us. “You might wanna call it … ammunition!” he said, chuckling to himself as he held out the paper at arms length and popped it to its full width.
Mrs. Finley led us into the kitchen. She offered my mother coffee and me a pecan cookie. I hesitated; I knew better than to accept the treat without my mother’s permission. “It’s O.K.,” my mother said. I sat at Mrs. Finley’s kitchen table, enjoying my cookie while my mother and Mrs. Finley sipped coffee and spoke at length about my less-than-acceptable behavior as a southern gentleman. My mother pulled money from her purse and held it out to Mrs. Finley as a peace offering and recovery for my destructive ways.
Mrs. Finley smiled and pushed the money away, “No, no, honey. It’s gonna be fine. You just keep your money."
Mrs. Finley held my hands between hers and said, “Thomas, I’ve known your granny and mama for a long, long time and they’ve always been hardworking women. Maybe your mama can clue you in, tell you a little about the folks in your family, like your granny, who’ve made it possible for you to enjoy things they never had.” She smiled and said to my mother, “Just talk to the boy about your history, your family and his future. Make him proud and he’ll behave … and we‘ll not worry about those flowers, O.K.?”
“Thank you so much Mrs. Finley” my mother replied, wiping a tear from under her eye and turning toward me. “Thomas, don’t you have something to say about all this?”
“ I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Finley.” I looked back at my mother’s tears. “I’m sorry mama.”
As we left the Finley's home, my mother pointed out an apology was also due to my Aunt Linda.
We found her in my grandmother's backyard gathering firewood. "Thomas has something to say to you Linda," my mother said.
My aunt stood there, stoic in pose, not smiling, her gaze transfixed on the Finley's hickory tree. She never once looked at me as I apologized with, "My mama says I have to say sorry to you." My mother bent down to my level and squinted her eyes at me, showing her dissatisfaction at my feeble attempt of an apology; her look of disapproval was all I needed to give a more appropriate apology, "Sorry aunt Linda. I'll behave, I promise." My mother smiled and walked away.
Admittingly, the moment was an awkward one standing alone with Aunt Linda, but it was gratefully cut short when she pointed at the hickory limb I had brought her earlier. "See that?" she asked me.
"We're going to need kindling this winter to start the fireplace logs." A smile finally broke across her face, "Break it up into pieces, all of it, and put it away."
An hour later, I stood back and smiled, admiring the neatly piled hickory sticks stowed under my grandmother's wood bin. I was pleased.
And so were the three ladies watching me from the window above.
That was forty-four years ago. My mother, aunt, and grandmother are long gone as are the Finley's, but that old hickory still stands to this day … and it left a mark on me I never want to forget.
A final note on this story by the author ....
I'm glad that "switching" is now outlawed in most every state. It is indeed a form of child abuse that has no place in the life of any child.
I don't believe I faired any worse in life given the number of times I felt the sting and bite of that thin branch, but I truly feel it was not needed ---"switch'n" did nothing to gain any advantage for me in life. And its application would do no good for any child of today.