Three years ago, I bought a second-hand golf cart for my kids. It was an apology for selling to a magazine what I believed to be my children’s only valuable inheritance: my directions for making Jammy Scones. Our little summer community, which centers around a slanty old clubhouse with a molding moose over the fireplace and four poorly tended tennis courts, is the perfect place for golf-carts. It is made up of about 25 tiny homes, called “camps,” all connected by dirt roads. The traffic is mostly confined to people weighed down with beach bags or kids on bikes. The biggest danger is a wily old dog named Zach who is known to filch towels and bathing suits off clothes lines and has the run of the place.
At the beginning, my kids thought the novelty of cruising around in their own vehicle was delicious. My 11-year-old son, Quin, (nicknamed “Mister” by all) was the first at the wheel. He did donuts on the scraggly grass in front of the tennis courts, with any number of children hanging on to the cart and, of course, falling off it.
It was, by all accounts, great fun but terribly distressing to those trying to focus on the fierce round-robin being played out on the courts. I wasn’t there to see it, but the incident was pieced together by several witnesses, ranging in age from 10 to 67. There were at least eight kids who were testing both the balance and the velocity of the cart by jumping on and off it at a run. Clever little heathen that Mister is, he added centrifugal force to the equation by turning a continuous circle with the accelerator to the floor. This all took place within 20 feet of the red clay courts, a setting for bitter feuds fought by people who have been playing tennis together for longer than 30 years. Despite the weeds growing up through the clay and the high percentage of replacement joints scattered among the players, this is serious tennis. It is not a game. They wear their whites and they fight for their family’s honor. Some kid in a dirty t-shirt does not distract them by doing donuts on a golf cart with his friends.
The next day, Mister was summoned before the tennis committee and made to promise that he would, in the future, use more decorum and judgment. He did promise, with a full and sincere heart. But the keys stayed in his pocket. Something was bound to happen, and, sure enough, it did.
On the day in question, not three weeks later, Mister was driving the golf cart down to the lake. It was late in the afternoon on a really windy day. The kids had been begging to go down to the lake and ride the swells, but I was knee-deep in a good book and not feeling generous with my time. The idea of supervising the changing of the bathing suits, the application of the sunscreen, the packing of the towels and snacks and flotation devices, the inevitable trip back up when someone needed to pee as soon as they had arrived — the whole process was more than I could take. On the other hand, they were kids and this was summer. By the time I finally agreed, I had been drinking that cocktail of guilt and resentment that bodes ill for any mother.
Mister took the wheel of the golf cart. Riding shot-gun was his friend, Sam. Sam’s mother is a triathelete and first grade teacher who got pregnant with donor sperm and so formed this lovely little family where the two of them have all kinds of time to go to the library and run together; she is as sunny and calm as you can imagine. Sam is a great kid: interesting, funny, curious, a good sport. Mister and Sam sat in front; I was on the back seat, facing the opposite direction with my two little ones, aged six and three.
By dint of going to lake, I was forced into wearing my bathing suit. My body has been my friend for 42 years, bearing four gorgeous children with very little complaint and accepting my blithe denials that it deserves regular exercise. So, while it is been my friend, it is also my bane when I have to expose it. I don’t look good in bathing suits and I don’t like trying them on. I order them from catalogues, replacing them only when the elastic wears out, and try to wear them without once looking in a mirror. They make me mad, so my bad mood at being interrupted was fermenting into a full-blown snit.
Mister started heading out the driveway when I heard Sam say, “What are you doing?” Mister answered glibly, “I’ve got plenty of room.” And then all of a sudden there was this huge crash and I turned around to see us wedged between our car and the fence. Mister had succeeded in driving the golf cart pretty much square into the back of the brand new car we brought home four days before. His “plenty of room” was short a good two feet. The car had an enormous dent. I don’t know if it was the bathing suit or the idea that my kid had just played bumper cars with the golf cart, but I lost my temper.
I jumped out screaming, “Jesus Fucking Christ, what the hell do you think you are doing?” Mister said, “Sorry, sorry, sorry” in the sing-song chant kids use when they are panicked. I yelled, “Sorry isn’t going to go far when you call your father and don’t for one minute think I’m placing that call because I’m not, you are. What else do I need to explain to you if you don’t know that you’re not supposed to drive the golf cart into the back of a new car? Do I need to tell you not to play in traffic? Do I need to tell you not to jump off bridges? Where’s the line here?”
Sam looked at me with the same look that I see on my kids’ faces when they watch horror movies and I was sure this kid right now must be thinking, “Oh, can I just go back to my sweet mother who looks fine in a bathing suit and thank God I don’t have a father if you have to call them when you do something by accident like that.”
I have screamed at my children regularly. I have said “Damn it” in front of them. I have, I’m sure, said things that were hurtful. But the combination of real swearing, screaming, and humiliating them all at once in front of their friends while inadequately dressed was not territory I had covered before. I knew I had reached new depths in the abyss of bad parenting, that I had let my despair over my sagging body eclipse my sense of humor and, worse, that I had allowed material concerns about the damage to a new car get me angry enough to lose all compassion. I am not a perfect mother, but I don’t like to think that I have the ability, in the heat of the moment, be a mentally abusive one. At least not in public.
When Mister called his father down in New York City at work to confess, Tom thought it was a joke. “Very funny,” he said on the phone. “Let me talk to your mother.”
Mister forlornly handed me the receiver, fearing he would be stuck forever in a purgatory where he would have to apologize over and over without anyone absolving him. As I took the phone, I realized it did sound like a joke. What does one say? “Yes, dear, he ran the golf cart smack into the side of the car.” “Yes, I realize you aren’t meant to do that.” “No, it is hard to call it an accident even though he didn’t do it on purpose.” I could hear Tom’s voice calling my name, sounding something like the mother’s voice on Charlie Brown cartoons. I looked at Mister’s face and I could tell by his expression he was shaken by my tirade.
I harkened back to a lecture I had heard from a woman who made all sorts of sense about parenting. She cautioned that your children should be raised with natural consequences. A child who spills the milk should be allowed to clean it up. It teaches the child responsibility and self-esteem. I always wondered, however, what the natural consequence should be for a kid who punches his baby sister. Like math, which is clear as can be when someone explains it to me but completely eludes me when I am alone with it in the room, finding the natural consequence to any given situation by myself is often a mystery.
I wanted to be the mother who sought natural consequences, who was rational in the face of irrational behavior that one should expect from children. I also wanted to be like Sam’s mother, the yoga mom who looked so trim in her racing suit. I didn’t want to be hostage to my emotional outbursts any more than I wanted to be hostage to my bathing suit. Yet I’m neither rational nor trim. I sputter and trip and fall over my anger and I have big thighs. I wondered what would happen if I stopped railing against all of it: the goofing around in the golf cart, the dented car, the lumpy thighs? Looking at my child’s face, the summer suddenly seemed too short to waste much time with any of it
“Listen,” I said to Tom, assuring him it was not a joke and slipping into legalese, “He did not exercise reasonable care, I grant you. (“Though,” I digressed, “the term ‘reasonable care’ when applied to an 11-year-old boy is arguably an oxymoron.”) But this was not premeditated. There is no nefarious intent by which we can call him guilty of a crime. He made a mistake. Let’s get the car fixed and move on.”
I listened to Tom for a few more minutes. He went on for some time about Mister’s surprising lack of common sense, about his total inability to behave himself for periods of time that exceed five minutes, about how sick and tired he was of Mister’s antics. There should be consequences, Tom argued. It was the language of a distant parent, a parent wearing a jacket and tie and sitting at a desk while his son is gallivanting in the Adirondacks, having the temerity to act like a kid while he, a 47-year-old securities analyst, is trapped in the grown-up world. I understood his frustration. “Yes, I agree with you, there should be consequences,” I said.
I turned to Mister while holding the receiver in my hand.
“Mister,” I said, “you may not drive the golf cart into the car any more. That is final. Do you understand?”