This is a story that I posted on Medium:
“Jesus Christ! Are you an idiot?!”
The words stung Mark’s ears, as he hung his head in abject shame. He was only 11 at the time. But he should have known better.
The ice in the cooler had melted, leaving three inches of water at the bottom. He was sure that he had twisted shut the plastic bread wrapper, and secured the twist tie. He placed the bread on top of the remaining ice. He did everything right.
But he was wrong. The bread had fallen from the ice into the water. The water had seeped into the bread wrapper. Every slice of bread had absorbed the cold water.
Mama had returned to the van to make a sandwich. As expected, she was not amused by the discovery of the waterlogged loaf. She knew that Mark was the last person to have opened the cooler. He would be the sole recipient of her vitriolic outburst:
“What the hell were you thinking?! How are we going to have sandwiches now?! Are you a Pollack?!”
Mark winced at every word. In the mid-1970s, “Pollack” was a racial slur that referred to people of Polish descent. But it was often used as an epithet for people with little or no common sense. That era was rife with Pollack jokes. A common example would have been as such:
Did you hear about the Pollack who went around the block 64 times? His turn signal was stuck.
This was the precise effect that Mama intended to achieve. Her son was a fucking dumb-ass for ruining the bread. He needed to know it. How else was he going to learn?
Deep down inside, Mark knew Mama wasn’t evil. She may have learned her abusive manner of speech from her mother. Mark could still remember riding in the back of his grandparents’ car. Grandma would berate Grandpa’s driving with a tirade of ‘passenger-seat driving’:
“You’re going too slow! You’re following too close to that car! You just missed the turn!”
Grandpa always exhibited the patience of Job. He would just tune her out. Grandpa never raised his voice to Grandma. Mark could not remember a time when his grandparents argued. Grandpa wouldn’t even say anything negative about Grandma when she left the room.
Mark assumed it was normal that women always berated the men in their lives. He could remember how he would cringe as Grandma chastised Grandpa. It was so embarrassing. But that’s just how life was. It was a part of everyday family dynamics.
The mission Mark faced each day was simple: get through the day without raising Mama’s ire. Don’t be stupid, or at least, don’t be stupid around her. Most of the time, he was able to do just that.
But God help him when he fell short of the goal. He would hear about it. At least she limited her abuse to words. She never raised a hand to Mark. He was grateful for that small favor.
The words, however, were still painful.