My First Encounter with Mercy…

” Now I want you to know, that at that very moment I knew that I was in deep trouble. “Dougie” (she called me Dougie), “I want you to go out to the tree and cut me a switch.” “

Doug Pacheco

At the age of five, my parents announced to me, that is, my mother, that unfortunately she would need to go to work. The economic necessities of raising a small brood such as ours demanded that more money come in. Not only the cost of living, but the cost of sending four children to a private Catholic school meant that my care would now fall to my maternal grandparents who lived not a quarter mile down the country road upon which we lived. Maynard and Ann Martin had raised 7 children in the middle of the depression.

My mother, the eldest was reared on that small farm in Bartholomew County and now, in the same home where she grew up, I was to be watched after until such a time as I would go to school. I remember not knowing what to do when I first arrived after my parents dropped me off in the morning. My grandparents were old … I mean…they were OLD and here I was this kid, ready to pounce on any fun I could find. In terms of doting grandparents…they were not the most affectionate. I can’t explain exactly why it was, but as a small child I was extremely affectionate. I would crawl up on a visitor lap to our home and hug them.

My parents a bit embarrassed by this would mumble something to the person and peel me off their neck and place me back on the floor. Like a monkey, I would crawl right back up into their laps. In hindsight, I now understand…and you who are reading this probably won’t, but, well…I was born a gentle soul. Don’t get me wrong, I can be a real butthead when I want to be, but I just was BORN with this capacity to care for people. It was written on my soul somewhere before time began. I came out of the womb and wanted to hug and to love and to kiss and to care for. I mean brother, I was a hugging fool.

It is amusing to me now, that the visitors to our home would finally submit to my hugs and whether they liked it or not they left knowing that someone in that house really liked them. It makes me laugh as I write this. , at least toward me. that’s nothing bad about my grandparents, they just weren’t the huggy type. They were farmers, pure and simple. They had things to do and places to go and cows to look after and wood to chop. I recall my grandmother telling me to get outside and find something to do. So much for picking blackberries and getting a tan.

My grandfather was a very kind man. He would whistle all day as he worked. He always was working, always busy. He raised rabbits, which I thought was great. What a great guy to raise all these rabbits just to pet and to hold! That is I thought it was really great until I saw why he raised rabbits. They weren’t for cuddling, they weren’t for petting, they were for killing, skinning and taking to the market to sell.

At first, I could not comprehend my mother’s kindness to animals message and this brutal butchering of Thumper. But then my grandfather explained to me that there was a difference between respectful use of an animal for consumption, and just outright cruelty to animals. He told me why he had chosen the method of slitting the throat rather than hitting them over the head. He respected life, and would nurse sick rabbits back to health. In my little mind, I understood. And it became my daily satisfaction to help him in any way I could.

Growing up in the country, you do not gauge how you measure up to others by the standards that city people measure. In the city, boys play on morning and noon Optimist Club baseball teams and compare who is better than who. In the country, you played baseball and both sides enjoyed the game and learned to field, hit and catch the ball all without the needless social B.S. that went along with which neighborhood you lived in or what kind of car you drove.

I just imagined that everyone did like we did. I got an education in those areas when I finally went to school, but in those young days, everyone was an equal. Everyone respected everyone. It was not a fantasy. It was real. Playing on my grandparents farm, doing some small chores and being called in for lunch by my grandmother was a daily rhythm, and being judged for who I was gave an incredible authenticity to life. It wasn’t all roses though.

The day came when I was unable to resist the one rule I had been given in my grandparents’ house. I was not, under any circumstances allowed to go into the basement. The stairway that lead down into the very dark musty basement was narrow, with stairs that were rickety and there might even be bugs down there. For me…it was a deliciously tempting cavern in which I knew pirates and robbers lived. I had always seen the door which lead to the basement, but opportunity for opening it had never presented itself until one day.

My grandmother had finished washing clothes, and had wrung them out on the old fashion wringer that was on the top of her washer. It was an electric wringer though…no hand cranking wringer but an electric one. Anyway, she had just finished wringing the laundry and had gone outside to hang the laundry on the clothes line. Now was my chance.

I quietly opened the door, held on to the handrail for dear life and walked down into the darkness of the basement. Step by step I got closer and closer to the cement floor at the bottom. Upon reaching it, the smell of old musty moisture filled my nostrils and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I could see a string hanging down from a light bulb on the ceiling and reaching up I pulled on it. To my amazement, the light shone on shelf upon shelf of glass jars filled with all kinds of things. Tomatoes, peaches, even potatoes in jars with lids on them. I was dumbfounded!

There were smaller jars on shelves that were lower that had stuff that looked like…well, like jelly. Over in the corner to my right was a record player unlike anything I had ever seen. It had a handle on it that wound up like a toy and out of the big bell looking thing on the front of it would come music. Somebody singing a song about “Elmer’s Tune”. I stopped the turntable from playing anymore music because I didn’t want to be discovered. When I put my hand out to stop it, it resisted and the edge of the record cut me slightly. I reacted by pulling back my hand and when I did, I knocked against the shelf that held the jars of vegetables and jellies. All of a sudden, “smash!!!” one of the jars fell on the concrete floor and smashed to smithereens. Letting go of the turntable, Elmer’s Tune began playing at full volume.

Heavy footsteps were heard over my head. It was my grandmother walking to the top of the stairs.

My grandmother was a big woman. She wore old country dresses with black shoes that looked like they were bought from a men’s store. The sound of those footsteps made me so scared that I bumped the shelf again and AGAIN another jar of jelly hit the dust. Now I want you to know, that at that very moment I knew that I was in deep trouble. “Dougie” (she called me Dougie), “I want you to go out to the tree and cut me a switch.” For those of you who live in this politically correct, sanitized, “don’t spank my kid cause he’s my buddy age” of “timeouts” let me help you to understand what “cut me a switch” means.

It means that an intense lesson of life is about to take place. It means that your buttcheeks and not your ears are going to be the principle receptors of the lesson. …probably with welts and your legs too, just because they are there. “Cut me a switch” means you are going to remember this lesson and I guarantee you will NEVER forget it. In fact you may be able to point to the scars forty years later and lie about where you got them to your fishing buddies.

It meant going to a tree with a knife, and cutting a green, willowy branch, maybe three to four feet long and about half the thickness of a pencil off the tree, then; skinning it from any leaves and swinging it in the air until it made the sound of a whip. Then, taking it to your grandmother whose eyes were bleeding with anger for you breaking two of her preserves she had stored for winter. She would instruct you to turn around and when you did, man…you would swear that Satan and his demons in hell had decided to burn you with fire at that moment. You would try to run…but a strong, smart grandmother would already have you by the arm…and running around her in circles, she could keep it up in perfect syncopation until you snot cried and snorted and couldn’t catch your breath…..this is what was in store for me.

I would not look up…I simply obeyed. But instead of getting a green, willowy, switch from the tree, I looked for the puniest, most rotten, ready to fall apart stick I could find and brought it to her. By the time I returned with the stick, (which, I milked it for a LONNNG time) the blood in her eyes was gone, and when I presented my pitiful excuse of a switch, (I think I saw a flashing smile come on her face then immediately disappear…it looked like it couldn’t hurt a fly) she told me to hold onto the chair in front of me. I remember holding that chair and visibly shaking.

Here it comes! What will it read on my gravestone? “Here lies a grape jelly waster!” What will my family say?

“If only he had listened to Grandma” would say my sister.

“We told you he was an orphan” would say my brothers.

At that moment, standing between heaven and hell, I heard what I believed was my grandmothers wind up. A mix between the sound of a tornado and hurricane ready to blow me to bits. Instead, I heard my grandmother sniffing and weeping. At this moment of expected pain, I instead felt the brush of my grandmother’s hair against my cheek and she was crying as she placed a kiss on my face. “Dougie, I want you to remember that while you were found guilty in the middle of your sins, Christ died for you…you deserve punishment, but from me, you will get only what I received, Mercy.”

With that, she broke the stick over her knee, took me in her arms and held me while she cried her eyes out. I began crying too. I WAS guilty. I WAS a sneaking jelly thief. I had raided the stores of food, and now the colony would starve in the cold winter. I had scratched “Elmer’s Tune” and I deserved not only the stocks, but to be executed at musket point in front of the village elders.

During that moment of unexpected reprieve from the Governor, I realized that my own mothers propensity to be forgiving had come from this saintly old lady in combat boots. She was all toughness on the exterior, but she had a better understanding of her own need for mercy than her need to mete out punishment.

I cried with my grandmother because it was the first, the earliest recollection I would have of God’s mercy on my life. What relief! There would be other times, even life threatening times in my future, where I WOULD receive the justice side of the law…but for that day, the sweetness of forgiveness stung much greater than any switch that I would have cut. I am 58 today as I write this, and I can tell you with certainty, that I feel it as surely as if it had just happened to me. Such is the effect of being forgiven. Once you have received it, you never, ever forget it.

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