When I was in high school, there were few hard and fast rules that covered everything in our family. I had one sister five-years older than I was, and one two–years younger, plus Ruthie who was much younger. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what applied to Dorothy (the oldest), didn’t necessarily apply to me or to Betty. There were times when what rules there seemed to be came across as arbitrary and inconsistent and I had a strong suspicion that it was Mother’s or Dad’s mood or convenience that dictated what was or was not allowed.
Requests for being permitted to do things like stay overnight with my best girlfriend, seeing a movie or attending a basketball game on a school night were sometimes granted– sometimes denied with no real reason that I could see. If I pressed the issue and asked “why,” the answer was usually an unenlightening, “Because I said so.” I tended to keep a mental record of these turned down requests in hopes that I could see a pattern andmaybe figure out the secret of what would and would not be granted, under what circumstances, how often, etc. I could never find any consistency or any reason and therefore, felt as if I were playing a kind of Russian Roulette whenever I made such a request.
There were a few activities that appeared to be usually acceptable. One of those was if I had made a commitment to work on a project at school. I was involved with the school plays, and annual events like homecoming and the Mother and Daughter Banquet. I was ALWAYS drafted to work on the homecoming float, make posters, build stage sets, and paint Li’l Abner characters on store windows for Sadie Hawkins Day. I had an after school job doing the windows at the J C Penney store and lettered many signs for exhibitors at the county fair each summer. I sang in the church choir and went to choir practice on Thursday evenings. Those activities were approved without question. They were important as far as my parents were concerned. As important as school and homework. As important as a trip to the library.
I was a good student with almost straight A’s, and I’m sure that had my grades suffered because of my extra activities– those activities would have been considerably limited and the more “frivolous” things like movies, roller skating, and what Dad called “hanging out” with friends would have been totally forbidden. Dad didn’t think much of mere social activities. To his mind getting together at the soda fountain, talking on the telephone for the pleasure of communicating with friends, church hayrides, parties and picnics (other than those family picnics) were pure wastes of time and likely to lead to trouble. On the other hand, he was quite proud of what talents I had and not only did he trust me to design the miniature golf course he built, he found me jobs painting signs (I even painted the company name on the sides of a semi trailer for a trucker friend of his– and all those numbers on the doors.)
I guess that over the years, I gleaned my best understanding of the rules by watching what got Dorothy in trouble with Dad. I learned real fast that it was not a good idea to say you were going one place and as soon as you were out of sight, go somewhere forbidden. I learned that you didn’t lie and say that the dance band you and your friends formed was a SCHOOL band. Even though I could see that my dad was stricter than most of my friends’ parents, I loved and respected him and there was no way I was about to do anything to make him shout at me. I also learned what high regard Dad had for learning and developing talents. He footed the bill for a correspondence art course for me because there were no art classes in our school. He bought sets of wonderful books for our bookcases and gave me books for gifts on birthdays and Christmas– besides approving of nearly unlimited trips to the library. And when I was awarded a Merit Scholarship to the University of Iowa, he never said a word about the extra expenses of room and board, books and art supplies and clothes that added up to a lot more than I realized. Granted, I spent all my summer evenings for over eight- years working at our miniature golf course and was never formally paid for my time.So I suppose I’d earned that college education but I would have worked there anyway. That golf course was my idea, I always felt that Dad and I did it together and I was proud of it.
When the day came that I had my own children and learned the necessity of rules for their conduct, I came up with some more consistent policies and tried to remember what it had been like from the child’s point of view. I may not have been nearly as strict as my own parents had been, but I was a lot more consistent and hardly ever heard myself say those four dreaded words, “Because I said so.”