For the Fourth of July when I was seven, someone gave my brother (who was almost six) and me U.S. flags—one for each of us. Each flag was about 12 inches by 18 inches, and it was stapled to a thin dowel about two feet long. The dowel had a pointed tip at the top above the flag, and the tip was painted gold.
My brother and I waved those flags around the house, marching as we waved like we were in a parade, to the consternation of our mother. We had moved into a new house the preceding October, and many things in the house still seemed brand new.
“Keep those things out of the living room,” Mother said. “I don’t want you knocking over a lamp.” She had a firm rule against any roughhousing in the living room.
So we moved our game to my bedroom, which was bigger than my brother’s room and had more floor space. I had new twin beds in the room, with new blue and white checked bedspreads that fell in ruffles from the top of the mattress to the floor. And matching custom-made curtains on the two windows. It was the first room I’d ever had to myself (well, the first since my brother was born, and I didn’t remember a time before he was around). He and I had shared a bedroom until we moved into this house.
We waved the flags and marched around my room until that got boring. Then the flags became spears. I don’t know whose idea the spears were, probably my brother’s, because he was more bellicose than I was.
We didn’t poke each other with the flag-spears, which is an amazing thing, given that we got into regular physical fights as kids. Those fights lasted until he got to be as big as me, when I rationally decided that punching and kicking didn’t make any sense if I couldn’t count on winning. But on this day in July, after a few half-hearted jabs at each other, we realized someone might get hurt by the pointed tips.
So we jabbed the bed, starting with the bed I slept in.
And my new bedspread tore. The tip went right through the cotton into side of the soft mattress, creating a rent about two inches long. It was deep in the ruffles and couldn’t be seen at first glance, but I was sure Mother would find it when she changed my sheets.
We stood stunned, flags in hand, staring at the bedspread. “Don’t tell,” I said.
My brother looked at me with wide eyes. “I won’t,” he said.
After a few minutes of chastened silence, we were back to jabbing—at the other bed this time.
And, of course, the same thing happened—the flag tip went through the other bedspread and created an almost identical tear.
“I don’t want to do this any more,” I said.
My brother shrugged, took his flag, and went off to his own room, leaving me with the evidence.
And I waited day after day, week after week, for my mother to find the rips in the bedspreads. Every wash day I cringed, sure that that would be the day she would start shrieking at the destruction we had wrought.
I couldn’t eat out of worry. I picked at meal after meal. I couldn’t even eat my dad’s pancakes.
My parents grew worried. “Eat,” they urged.
“I don’t feel good,” I whined.
Finally, one Sunday morning, I retched at the sight of pancakes, left the breakfast table in tears, and ran into my bedroom.
My dad followed me. “What’s wrong, Theresa?”
And I sobbed as I confessed that my brother and I had torn holes in the bedspreads. I showed him first one rip and then the other. He didn’t seem too bothered.
He called my mother in, and I had to tell the tale all over again. I think she was mostly disgusted that I’d made such a big deal about it. “Well, you’ll have to live with it,” she said. “We aren’t getting new ones.”
I hiccuped and nodded.
“But we can switch the spreads so the tears are against the walls.”
And that’s she did. Those bedspreads lasted for years—until well after my younger sister, not even born at the time, inherited that bedroom and its furnishings.
When did you overreact to a problem as a child?