My father never, so far as I know, spanked any of his six children. He left discipline to our mother, Eileen. But discipline is an awfully heavy word for her slapdash, informal attempts to corral us.
Once when I was five we had all gone across the street to the Whitemans' back yard. Eileen called us and we either failed to hear her or we heard and ignored her. The next thing we knew she burst into the Whitemans' yard, screaming, "I TOLD you to come home!" She had taken the time to strip a switch from one of the straggly spirea (bridal wreath) bushes in front of our house, and she proceeded to switch our little bare legs as we scampered home in front of her, darting and dodging to try to avoid the sting of the switch. You could call this picture "Mother at the end of her tether" or "Exasperation and exhaustion" or "Too many children under the age of seven."
Other than that, I remember only one other time when Eileen was well and truly possessed by the demon of fury. We were 11, 9, 7, 5, and 4, with baby Mary still three years away from joining us. Mike, at 7, was our middle child. He was funny and, in order to differentiate himself from his two older, perfect siblings (one of whom was me), he had devoted his short life to finding ever more interesting ways to make us laugh and/or to get into trouble. I don't know what he had done on this particular day, but that's the only detail I've forgotten.
Eileen, upon finding evidence of whatever this last straw was, grabbed him by his arm and yanked him to the little sewing area that she had created in the narrow upstairs hallway. It was a little space that ran parallel to the staircase, a cul de sac with her sewing machine at the end of it. She dragged Mike to that spot, I think, because there was a chair there, and because her yardstick was handy.
She spanked (beat?) Mike's bare bottom with the yardstick.
The rest of us were clustered around the scenefar enough away that the yardstick couldn't reach us, but otherwise as close as we could get.
I was crying. Mike was two years younger than I, my own "baby." I felt every stroke of the yardstick landing on his bottom, as painful as if it were happening to me.
Mike, rigidly determined not to cry, uttered no sound.
The more he refused to yield to Eileen's anger, and to her high moral ground of motherhood, control, and ownership, the more angry Eileen became. Mike's refusal to cry denied her the release she needed. And so she kept spanking him with the yardstick.
The yardstick broke in half.
Eileen continued to thrash him with the remaining eighteen inches of stick, until the enormity (I think now) of what she was doing registered in her brain. The broken yardstick was a clue. She stopped.
That day remained in the family memory as "the day Eileen broke a yardstick spanking Mike." Each of us who were there has a private memory of the scene. I remember exactly where I stood in relation to this bizarre pieta; I could lead you to the very spot in that house.
There may have been other occasions when one or another of us was spanked, but I don't believe a yardstick was ever again used.
Did I learn from this experience? Did it give me greater wisdom and compassion when I was raising my own three? I think I swatted a few toddler bottoms out of fear-induced anger (attempts by a Terrible Two to run out into the street just because he had been told not to; that sort of thing).
But what I remember with shame is the time I slapped my only son. He was a lippy kid (and I wonder where he got THAT) and he smart-mouthed me one time too many, on a day when my indentured servitude with the certifiably insane bosses at my workplace had set me more than usually on edge. So I slapped him across the face. Hard. We were both shocked, and neither of us has ever forgotten it.
I can only hope that the memory of that will keep him from some day doing the same thing to his own son, just as Eileen's yardstick event warned me off canings for life.