Mediation entails explaining to a child not only what to do but also why and how to complete a task. Parents who are overwhelmed with life’s demands sometimes forget or are not aware of the benefits of mediating their children. This episode from my life illustrates what can happen when a child does not understand the why and how of a task. It also shows the impact of weak emotional resources.
Momma called me from outside into the kitchen, where she was cooking supper. On the stove she had a wad of butter melting in a frying pan. “Watch the butter until it melts,” she said quickly, then ran out of the room.
So, I did. I watched the butter until it melted, then went back outside to play.
Minutes later I heard Momma screaming my name. When I ran back into the house, the kitchen was filled with smoke. “I thought I told you to watch the butter until it melted!” Momma yelled at me as she coughed, opened a window, and fanned at the air.
“I did!” I told her, not knowing exactly what I had done wrong. Mom said nothing else. She just looked at me, still swinging her arms at the smoke, almost laughing. I decided I should go back outside before her almost-happy mood changed.
Only a few minutes later Momma and Daddy came out of the house. Momma was carrying Amy. “Come on,” Daddy said to me. “We’re out of butter. We’re gonna walk up to the store and get some more.” Daddy wasn’t quite as good natured about the burned butter episode as Momma had been earlier.
“You look pretty today, Momma,” I said as I skipped along behind the three of them, my bare feet unaffected by the gravel on the road.
“Just be quiet and come on,” she replied. She didn’t like for me to tell her she was pretty when Daddy was around.
We walked to the neighborhood store, which was not far from our house. As usual, there were several men standing around the corner of the store building, drinking from bottles wrapped up in brown paper bags. Daddy walked straight toward them. “Tell Mr. King to charge the butter and I’ll pay for it next week,” he said to Momma as he branched off from us.
“Buck, Josephine will get home from school in a little while, so we don’t have much time.” I knew Momma was warning Daddy not to get too busy talking to his friends.
I followed Momma into the tall, white store building. The wooden floors squeaked every time she took a step. I tried to make the boards squeak too, but I didn’t weigh enough, so I gave up and started staring at the food and jars on the shelves. I didn’t know what much of it was, and I was sure it must be for “rich people.” Fans hung from long chains over our head and the breeze felt good. Momma quickly found the butter and took it to the cash register to charge it. “Ester, you look lovely today. You hardly look old enough to have three children.” Mr. King said to her. “How old are you?”
“I’m 24,” Mom answered while she put Amy down and signed the due bill. “How old is Buck?” Mr. King liked to talk.
“He’s 37,” Mom answered. “He’s only 13 years older than me. That’s all.” I’d heard people ask Momma about her and Daddy’s ages a lot of times.
“He robbed the cradle, and he found himself a pretty baby,” Mr. King talked louder and louder as Momma walked away from him toward the door, the butter in one hand, Amy’s hand in the other, and me tagging along behind. I was sure everyone outside could hear Mr. King by now; he was talking so loudly. “Yes, Buck sure found himself a pretty baby.”
“Buck is waiting for me; I have to go.” Momma picked Amy up and turned her head to say goodbye to Mr. King just before she reached the doorway. Looking back, she almost tripped on the top cement stair.
“Let me help you,” one of Daddy’s friends ran toward Momma, took her elbow, and helped her the rest of the way down the stairs. “Your old man is not much of a gentleman, is he?” the man asked. That man helping Momma looked so young, I thought. Just like Momma.
“Are you ready?” She asked Daddy, ignoring the stranger’s comments.
“I’ll be there when I get there. Quit telling me what to do.” Daddy turned up the paper bag with the bottle inside and took a long drink. The men around him cheered.
“Let’s go home,” Momma said as she took my hand, still carrying Amy and the butter in her other arm.
Momma seemed really nervous when we got back to the house, and she looked out the window a lot. An hour or so later she said, “Girls, go play in the bedroom and close the door.” She sounded strange. “Hurry,” she scurried us into the bedroom and closed the door at the same time that Daddy opened the front door that led into the kitchen.
“You sorry bitch! You burned that butter just to get to go talk to those men!” we heard Daddy shouting as soon as he walked in. Then we heard a crash on the floor.
I ran to the door, cracking it slightly to see Daddy trying to get up on his feet, “No, Daddy, that’s not right. I burned the butter.” Daddy stumbled to the bedroom door and tried to slam it shut again, but it hit my face. I screamed. The shouting between Momma and Daddy continued for a long time. When the shouting ended, for the rest of the day they didn’t have much to say to each other, and Momma went to bed with a headache. Josephine, Amy, and I were hungry enough to eat leftover oatmeal for supper.
When I realized that I had failed Mom and let the butter burn, I felt “stupid,” a feeling that has resurfaced many times during my life. Only within recent years have I learned that childhood success is dependent upon mediation—understanding not only what to do, but also why and how.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”