Sometime after my parents divorced, my mother was driving us home from a Thanksgiving spent with my grandparents in Fresno. She decided we would go through Nothern Arizona so we could stop and visit her Uncle Andrew. I didn't think I had ever met Uncle Andrew, but I had heard his name a lot before. He held a high position in our church and had been in a war. He was something of mystical hero to my mom and her side of the family.
I was an impatient ten-year-old prone to car sickness and didn't want to make any trip longer than it had to be.
“Can't we just go home?”
“You love Uncle Andrew.”
“I don't even know him.”
“You do, but don't remember it because you were just a baby. Everyone loves Uncle Andrew. He's a stake president. Did you know he has not eaten chocolate since coming back from the war?”
That part about being a stake president, that is an important church role to Mormons, so he must have had a lot of clout in his largely Latter Day Saint community. The other part, about the chocolate, is a non-sequitur. And that is the way we talk in my family.
“He doesn't eat chocolate?”
“No. Something happened to him in the war and he won't eat chocolate.”
“What about his kids? Can they eat chocolate?”
“Yes, but he won't.”
“Why? What happened to him in the war?”
“He never said. He probably had a vision.
I still was not happy about extending the agony of the road trip, but it was inevitable. I started to wonder now if I might be able to find out why a wise man wouldn't eat chocolate. Could he have been tortured with chocolate somehow? Maybe an angel appeared to him and promised to deliver him safely home from the war if he vowed never to eat candy bars again. Adults won't ask things like that, but given the chance I probably would.
So we went to see Uncle Andrew.
Uncle Andrew's house was huge compared to the houses I knew, so I thought it must be true that he was a successful and important person. There were the familiar prints in gilded frames of Joseph Smith and Blonde Jesus. There were doilies on the arms of the couches and, just like my mom's other aunts and uncles' houses, everything smelled like Ben-Gay. Also, the house had a basement that wasn't like the few gross basements I had seen when we lived in Mesa. The basements I had seen there had dirt floors and were where the hot water heater was. They smelled of insecticide and us kids were forbidden from going in without a grown-up. Technically, I think they were cellars or crawl spaces, but the hastily built cinder block houses in the area where we were living in Tucson by then didn't have even those.
The basement at Uncle Andrew's was like in houses on television. There were bedrooms and bunk beds and there was carpet and there was a rec room with weights and trophies and black-and-white photos of my mom's now grown and moved-away cousins as high school track stars. Yes, there was wood paneling. To ten-year-old me it seemed like they had a vacation home underneath their real home. I spent as much time there as I could that day studying the trophies and pictures of my mom's athletic cousins, wondering about their lives and thinking about how to ask Uncle Andrew later why he wouldn't eat chocolate.
But I was cut short.
At dinner he announced, “Your boys need haircuts. Before you folks leave tomorrow, I'll get the clippers out and shear 'em.”
“What does shear mean?” I asked.
“That's what we have to do to the sheep, so we can make coats with the wool.”
Ha, ha! Cool. I wanted to see the clippers and hoped I could get the flattop the cousins in the photos all had. I laughed and made a joke. Would they sell our hair to make coats? Ha, ha!
Then without missing a beat, he added,“We also have to do it when little boys start looking like little girls, like you do.”
All the adults laughed again. But, ouch. I probably made a face because my mom shot me a dagger.
I no longer wanted the flattop. I no longer cared about making these people laugh. I just no longer wanted to be there. As soon as he left the room I told my mom I didn't like him and I wasn't getting a haircut.
“You'll behave and you'll get a haircut.”
“We'll see about that.”
When Uncle Andrew came back, he asked mom if I was giving her trouble.
“He gets a little big for his britches sometimes. He thinks he's not getting a haircut, but he's getting a haircut. You're right. He needs one. Thank you for offering.”
I don't remember what was said next. I do remember there was shouting and tears and probably spitting. That was something I did then. When everything seemed horrible and beyond my control, I spit. Soon Uncle Andrew gave me a bad haircut, a hard spanking, and a talk about boys growing up without fathers needing discipline.
When we left the next day, Uncle Andrew said, “Bring your little girl back for a haircut and a spanking any time.”
More laughter. I fumed and tried to make sense of what had happened. It was too much though.
I had a dad. I hadn't done anything wrong. I actually wanted the haircut at first. Why did he have to say I looked like a girl? Why did that feel so, I dunno, yucky?
It would be years before I comprehended why it feels creepy when grown men are bothered by little boys looking like little girls.
But mostly I wanted to know why my mom, who was still angry with me, had let him spank me.
“He loves you and he is worried about you.”
“Well, I hate him. I hope I never see him again.”
“If you talk like that again, I'll spank you. One day you'll understand and you'll be thankful.”
But I didn't and I'm not.
Years later when it happened that a man I was dating turned out to be from Uncle Andrew's town and congregation, I told him the story about the haircut and the spanking.
“Really?” He asked, “I always thought he was a sweet guy, but I can see it. He was awfully stern with those kids. Did you ever find out about the chocolate?”
“No. I didn't care after that.”
And it's true, I didn't. By the time we got back to our cinder block house without a basement or a father's discipline, I decided Uncle Andrew had probably had just come down with food poisoning in whatever country he was in during the war and later, when he didn't want to talk about the diarrhea, everyone reconciled his stubborn silence with something unquestionably sacred.
Another time when people who should know better got their faith mixed up with some man's awful crap.