I had finally moved up to the bigger box. The coveted 24 pack of Crayola Crayons. I had colored my 5-year-old way through the 8 pack and the 16, and had graduated to 24. I was so excited to have so many more options, so many more of the bright, happy colors I adored. My coloring books would never be the same.
We didn’t have a lot of money, and it was 1976, so coloring was one of my favorite forms of entertainment. Things were slower back then, and without television networks devoted to endless cartoons, video games and the internet to entertain us, we had to find things to do on our own. Free from the psychological constraints having an incredibly talented sister would later place on me, I still fancied myself quite the artist.
I’d gotten in trouble before for leaving my crayons on the floor of the living room, and had been instructed, as usual, to go get my father’s belt for a beating. I was a precocious, stubborn, strong-willed little girl, but I lived in fear of the belt. When the belt entered the picture, my red curls snapped to attention, and my blue eyes widened in fear. I had the task of picking up my crayons permanently seared into my memory with every lash of leather on my young skin. From that point on, I always picked up my crayons when I was done coloring. Always.
My sister was a few years younger than me, and I never wanted to play with her. She was a great kid, but I was an odd child, and preferred to play alone. She followed me around and wanted to do everything I did, to my annoyance, and I was required to share my things with her, which is a nice lesson. But she was younger than me and didn’t quite have the house rules committed to memory. I should have seen it coming.
When I let my little sister borrow the glorious 24 pack of crayons, I was probably relieved that she’d found something to do besides emulate me. I had been busy playing with toys in my orange shag-carpeted bedroom, probably listening to the Mickey Mouse record player I loved so much, when my dad got home from work.
My dad really liked to take out his bad days on his wife and two daughters when he got home, and because he was an unhappy person in an unhappy marriage working a job he didn’t like, most of his days were bad. Much of my early childhood was spent avoiding the man, because being within his physical or mental reach never yielded anything particularly pleasant. He had proven himself easily capable of hitting my mom and me, so I kept my distance from the junkyard dog of his psyche.
He yelled my name, and I froze in terror. He sounded mad, and that never meant anything good. But I knew that hiding would only make the punishment worse when he found me. And he always found me. Full of dread, I walked down the hallway from my room, toward the living room where he stood.
Where he stood over my crayons.
My sister had left them out. She was younger. She didn’t know. She didn’t realize the enormity of what she’d done. And I would love to say that I was a brave girl and took the fall for her, but instead I ratted her out immediately. It wasn’t noble of me, but I knew she wouldn’t be punished as harshly. I thought that maybe if he knew I hadn’t done it, that I’d respected the rules written on my bare ass by the stinging belt, he might calm down and understand this time. Just this time, maybe it could be different.
I apologized again and again, repeated that I’d lent my crayons to my little sister, that I never would have left them out. When he didn’t send me to go get the belt, I thought that maybe my begging had worked.
He bent down and started to gather up the crayons into his hands. I was confused. Surely he wasn’t picking them up for me? Shouldn’t he be making my sister pick them up, the way I’d had to pick them up before, limping from the spanking, with snot and tears crusting my face, gathering them into my shaking toddler hands?
He walked into the kitchen with my 24 crayons. My mom was cooking dinner and turned around to watch as he started snapping them in half, slowly, individually, while he laughed at my growing hysterics. He dropped the broken pieces into the open garbage can while I sobbed in horror.
I was screaming for my mom to stop him, that my sister had left them out, not me, while she screamed at him to stop. But no matter how hard I cried and apologized for what I hadn’t even done, no matter how my mom pleaded, he just kept snapping them.
Red, snap! Dandelion, snap! Violet, snap! Orange, snap! Green-yellow, snap! Yellow-orange, snap! Violet-red, snap! Yellow-green, snap! Yellow, snap! Blue-green, snap! Scarlet, snap! Cerulean, snap! Apricot, snap! Red-violet, snap! Indigo, snap! White, snap! Brown, snap! Black, snap! Carnation pink, snap! Red-orange, snap! Green, snap! Blue, snap! Blue-violet, snap! And gray, snap! So much gray.
Until all of my beautiful colors were ruined.
He grabbed a beer and left the kitchen to sit in his chair in front of the television until my mom finished cooking dinner.
I think the worst part of all was how my father destroyed my brand new crayons with a smile on his face. This was no “it hurts me more than it hurts you” parental lesson, he clearly relished the pain he was causing me; I have no doubt. I am not one of those people with an amazing brain that can recall many clear moments from childhood, but the traumatizing ones have always stayed with me. This was one of my first lessons about the great cruelty of which humans are capable, and I’ll never forget it.