A mother’s anger, a child’s pain

This article was originally published in the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise in 1986.

It was a flash of ignorant, emotional anger; it was so evil, so quick, so casual that it took a few hours for it to really sink in.

Even now, I think about it.

The scene, a supermarket. The actors, a poor, leathery young mother and her unfortunate daughter.

The mother is shopping. She is bored, pawing at items, glancing at them, thumping them into her shopping cart. The daughter is a few paces ahead, dirty faced, asking for this and that.

“Shut up, brat,” the mother hisses loudly at her. Then, in case someone heard, her eyes dart around and a phony smile dances on her lips. Convinced no one has heard, she turns her face towards the child, her eyes widen and glare quickly, the smile becomes a threat.

The girl, perhaps 2- or 3-years-old, begins to ask for something else.

Quickly, seemingly without thought, and in the midst of a dozen strangers, the mother moves on her child and delivers a slap that would knock the sense from a grown man.

It is the kind of blow that is rarely seen outside a boxing ring or a Rocky movie.

The mother, sliding into a slight crouch, winds up from below the knee, brings her whole body to bear on the child and whips her hand upward with slicing force.

The entire surface of her hand and fingers hit the side of the girl’s head at once. A thick sound, not a slapping sound, resounds from the tile in front of the produce counter. It hangs in the air; it is dead in time.

The child’s head flies upward, one foot is unglued from the floor, her whole body twists into a contorted arch and she staggers sidelong for a few feet.

The whole thing takes only a second, really, but to stand there, to see it, takes longer. It is like looking at a photograph, or watching a film run at a very slow speed.

An old woman purses her lips into a righteous grimace and glares briefly at the mother. An old man adjusts his Mack Truck cap, looks away and sighs. The girl behind the produce counter is horrified; she looks as if she is about to cry.

The sight and sound of the blow make me want to run over to the woman and hit her full in the face with my fist.

A curious response.

I want to call her on it, draw attention to her, stick my nose in her business. Instead, I do nothing, along with everyone else.

For what is there to do? One brutal slap that draws no blood will not separate the mother from her daughter. A public admonition will most likely bring a private, more brutal beating on the child, who, by the way, has moved a few feet away and is screaming horribly.

Within moments, though, she is quiet. She seems used to it. She seems to have forgotten it already.

I catch the mother’s glance and she squints her eyes and tightens her lips and stares for a moment before walking over to her child.

“Mommy’s sorry,” she says softly, artificially, self-consciously, for everyone to hear.

Then, after everyone has stopped paying attention, has felt too much shame to look on anymore, she jerks the child to her side and speaks in a more real tone.

“Now you shut up and behave or you know what you’ll get,” she says before glancing upward with a look of sweet cruelty.

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